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Reading Umberto Eco was hard work. That's exactly how he liked it

Shyam Shreyas | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:45 IST

Umberto Eco wrote his worst work of fiction - The Name of the Rose - only because he wanted to kill a monk. He built an entire narrative out of a single urge to do that.

I was twenty when I read it. It was nothing like I, a self-confessed murder mystery fan, had read before. The complexity of the work made progress slow and painful at times. But I read it still. Because of his bizarre, almost perverse, level of irreverence. And I couldn't get enough of it.

Foucault's Pendulum was next on my list. I was slowing learning the process of breaking down an Eco work.

(The funny thing is, I'd never previously persisted in reading books that I felt were beyond my intellectual reach. I was happier being transported into alternative universes and being immersed in narratives that weren't my own. But working hard while reading - he was the first author who forced me to do that.)

I could never figure out his novels, or their narratives, at first attempt. And that was my second lesson in reading Eco: Be Humble.

There was nothing he didn't write about

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, arguably one of his most accessible books, features an aging antiquarian book dealer, Yambo, who suffers a stroke and loses his memory. He forgets everything except all he's ever read. He sifts through his vinyls, and books and by a process of literary association, attempts to regain his memory.

With references covering Sacks, Sandokan, and Samsa, the book takes you through Yambo's struggle to recall the face of the girl he loved. Yambo's nonlinear recollections are colored by Eco's own experiences of growing up in fascist Italy. The reader is drawn into the web of allusions and connections that recreate Yambo's struggle in the reader's mind.

This book again proves that everything is connected in Eco's worldview. In his own words, "I rediscovered what writers have always known (and have told us again and again): books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told."

Eco fundamentally changed how I read. While I'd been an avid reader all my life, I viewed reading almost like a lecture where someone talks at you. This process breaks down when you're reading an Eco novel.

As a reader, you are in for some heavy lifting. And lots of figuring out on your own.

Interestingly, this is probably precisely what Eco wanted his readers to do. Its what he expected from the act of reading. Eco had two personal libraries; boasting of 50,000 books, with 1600 rare books among them. In his book The Black Swan, Taleb states:

"The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and non-dull. He is the owner of a large personal library . and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with "Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?" and the others - a very small minority - who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an anti-library."

Perhaps his extensive reading gave him the gift of intertextuality - bringing together in his writing medieval history, semiotics, pop culture, and religion.

The Name's Eco. Umberto Eco

He was also a big James Bond fan, having published a paper on narrative structures in Ian Fleming's Bond novels. That's right - he performed academic research when the rest of us were fixated on the Bond Girl.

And that's really the essence of reading Eco. When you read an Eco book - you're reading a condensed form of much, much more. You're reading from research, his library, and from pop culture. There's nothing under the heavens (interestingly, that's what the name Eco really means) that he hasn't tried to get you to think about. I haven't entirely figured out how to read Eco. I haven't full learned how to break his works down. And with his passing away this month, I now have a lifetime of learning to read Eco - even the same books over and over again - to look forward to.

First published: 23 February 2016, 1:35 IST
Shyam Shreyas

Shyam lives in California, and his wife carefully edits everything he writes