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  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2016/03/01 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , umberto eco   

    5 Indispensable Umberto Eco Books 

    The news of Umberto Eco’s death saddened book lovers everywhere; a giant of literature, philosophy, and literary criticism, Eco has long been one of those famous writers who’s name-checked constantly—and yet was largely misunderstood, even overlooked due to a perceived “difficulty” in reading his work. As with many “difficult” writers, the secret of reading Eco’s work is to just enjoy the beautiful writing and the lively intellectual curiosity (and sense of humor) that pervades it. Eco was remarkable: an Italian academic who nonetheless became a bestselling novelist with fiction informed by his theories on language and communication.

    If Eco has been on your “should really try to read” list for a while now, his passing is the reminder you need that not reading Eco in your lifetime is a mistake. If you’re not sure where to begin with his work, here are five books everyone should dive into.

    The Name of the Rose
    Eco’s most famous work of fiction, this dense novel is set in an Italian Benedictine Monastery in the year 1327, and follows Franciscan friar William of Baskerville as he investigates a series of mysterious deaths. The mystery is in its basic form fascinating, making this a novel that can be enjoyed on a high level—but the true pleasures of the book are unlocked when you allow yourself to follow Eco down a labyrinth of thought involving a real book (Aristotle’s book on Comedy) of which no known copy exists, the meaning of words (including the titular “rose”), the power of laughter, and the way all texts refer to and even include, to some extent, other works. Beautifully written, The Name of the Rose inspires you to think more deeply, making this a must-read even if you’re not entirely certain you understand it completely—or uncertain understanding it completely is even possible.

    Foucalt’s Pendulum
    Perhaps Eco’s most complex novel, on the surface the story involves three bored employees at a vanity publisher who, inspired by manuscripts about conspiracy theories, invent their own for fun, called The Plan. Unexpectedly, The Plan is taken seriously by conspiracy theorists around the world, and they find themselves under threat from people who come to suspect they truly possess hidden knowledge. As with The Name of the Rose, you can enjoy this novel as a tense thriller—a thinking man’s Da Vinci Code, even—but the true pleasures here come when you dig a little deeper, as Eco once again explores the nature of what we believe to be “real” and what knowledge actually is—in other words, how do we know what we think we know? If every bit of knowledge is passed down to us, how can we ever be sure of its veracity?

    Numero Zero
    Eco’s last novel shows no signs of Eco’s slowing down or aging, spinning a complicated tale of a failed writer hired to write newspaper articles never meant for actual publication. Eco uses this setup to launch a withering attack on modern journalism, as the skill set the non-journalists learn more or less focuses on manipulating their audience with simplified writing, ominous implications, and finding patterns where none exist in order to imply looming disaster at all times. Funny and sharp in its observation of modern life and the way truth has ceased to have meaning, the novel proves Eco remained one of our sharpest minds up until the end, and his observations concerning how easily journalism can be used to create reality is timely, expertly described, and immensely entertaining.

    Kant and the Platypus
    Eco was first and foremost an academic who sought to understand how meaning comes to be communicated through signs and symbols, language and images. His breakthrough work was A Theory of Semiotics, but this later collection builds on those initial essays and develops them further. Anyone who takes their reading seriously—and certainly any aspiring writer—will benefit from thinking about how words and language work, and Eco’s clear writing style moves easily from idea to idea, making these essays useful for anyone, even if you’re not familiar with the field. It’s important to remember Eco as more than just the guy who wrote that medieval mystery novel, and this collection of some of his most famous academic essays is the perfect way to do so.

    How to Travel with a Salmon
    Umberto Eco had a great sense of humor. Often lost in critical appreciations of his more serious work, his sense of comedy and satirical writing was impeccable. This collection of his humorous essays will open up a whole new side of the writer, as Eco hilariously parodies science fiction novels, rants about mass transit in the modern age, and even offers a guide to becoming, of all things, a Knight of Malta. Eco manages to imbue his humorous writing with brilliant points, but this collection of essays reminds us Eco wasn’t just brilliant, he was brilliantly funny.

  • Jeff Somers 4:00 pm on 2015/01/01 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , gravity's rainbow, , , , , , , reading resolutions, , , the gulag archipelago, the name of the rose, , , , umberto eco, ,   

    10 Books You Should Finally Read in 2015 

    Umberto Eco's The Name of the RoseLife’s not getting any easier—and neither are these books. While there’s nothing wrong with reading a brisk spy novel or a weepy romance or a horror novel you have to put in your freezer at night in order to be able to sleep, you know you’ve been avoiding certain novels your whole life. Time to put on your grownup pants and tackle these tomes—and here’s how to do it.

    Ulysses, by James Joyce

    Relax. Ulysses is challenging, but it’s not nearly as challenging as some of Joyce’s other works (did I hear someone scream “Finnegan’s Wake!” in the distance before bursting into tears?). The trick here is to stop trying to comprehend every specific reference to Dublin in 1904 and just get into the rhythm of it. In other words, don’t study Ulyssesread it.

    The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

    The opening chapter of this novel is one of the hardest to crack in fiction, but the secret to The Sound and the Fury is in the fact that all the information you need to figure it out is right there in the story. The trick? Remember that if you take away the technical virtuosity and literary technique, what you have left is a rip-roaring soap opera about a family destroying itself.

    Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

    The real challenge of Infinite Jest may be its gonzo science-fiction universe. With wheelchair-bound Québécois assassins, years named after consumer products, and women too beautiful to view safely in full daylight, Infinite Jest takes a while to acclimate to. The secret here is to view the book not as a heavy work of literary genius, but as a roiling comedy that uses its ridiculous setting and details to craft a series of darkly hilarious set pieces.

    Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville

    Moby-Dick has the distinction of being perhaps the most well-known novel no one has read. Its reputation for 19th-century density and complex language makes it fearsome. The trick to Moby-Dick? It is hilarious. There are more dirty jokes in this book than you can shake your peg-leg at (see what we did there), and the whaling stuff? Absolutely thrilling, once you get used to the rhythm of the language.

    In Search of Lost Time (aka, Remembrance of Things Past), by Marcel Proust

    Yes, In Search of Lost Time is easily the longest thing you’ve ever declined to read. What’s remarkable about it is the depth of the personal—you do get the sense of accompanying someone on a sense-memory exploration. The key here is simple: This book is about many things, but chief among them is sex. Start looking for the dirty bits, and before you know it you’ll be in the middle of volume three.

    The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Rambling, complex, and filled with lengthy philosophical detours, this novel is pretty daunting. But rather than being a dour, endless novel, The Brothers Karamazov is a raucous tale of drunkenness, murder, and lust. The trick here is to stop trying to catch every detail and just enjoy the main stories: Mitya’s and Lyosha’s. If you understand what happens to them, everything else falls into place.

    Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon

    It’s time. You’ve been avoiding Gravity’s Rainbow since you were a kid. You’ve been avoiding the endless symbolism, the encyclopedic puns, and the faint sense that Pynchon is pulling our legs. But this is a book you can’t dismiss unless you’ve read it, and it’s time. The trick—as with all of Pynchon’s work—is to stop thinking of the book as an awesome piece of serious literature and just enjoy it as a silly farce. This is, after all, a book that includes a bit about a man whose erections may predict rocket attacks on wartime London.

    The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

    The language of this book even in translation isn’t complex, and the story it tells isn’t symbolic. The difficulty lies in the subject matter; it’s difficult to imagine that anyone could experience—and survive—what Solzhenitsyn and his fellow prisoners did. The trick here? Every time you finish a page, wiggle your toes inside your slippers and sip something nice and simply be happy it’s a book.

    The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

    When approaching this book nervously, from an angle, you’ll hear some fairly alarming terms, like semiotics or deliberate mistranslation. Fear not! The trick with this admittedly dense and fascinating novel is simple: It’s a murder mystery. Let everything else hit you subliminally, and just concentrate on enjoying the story at its most primal level.

    Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

    Cloud Atlas has the difficult novel trifecta: A shattered timeline, an invented patois, and a story involving several sets of characters in completely different time periods. The trick with Cloud Atlas is that it’s like reading seven novels all at once. There is a theme, and a point, but ultimately what this means is that if you’re confused or bored or mildly alarmed by what you’re reading, just muddle through—a new story will begin shortly.

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