A while back, all the cool kids in the blogosphere were making lists of the five most influential books in their lives. I am hesitant to provide such a list; I love books and reading, and so choosing the most important to me, especially to narrow it down to only five, is problematic. (So I’ll make a list of 10.) Nevertheless, it seems worthwhile to ruminate on the important books of my life, especially given my chosen profession in the library. [Ack! I’ve violated the First Rule of Modern Librarianship: Don’t talk about books because nobody uses books anymore! Perhaps I should instead make a list of my favorite databases. Let’s see: JSTOR, Academic Search Premier, Project MUSE (because it has a nice logo)…..ok, this is no fun. Back to books.] So, consider this post the first of
many at least a few in which I reflect on books I’ve read. (Or perhaps more specifically, what I remember I’ve read. I fear there is a large gap between the two.)
First up – The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
The Rose in Winter is an online book club, to begin tomorrow on December 7th, to discuss The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s 1983 international bestseller. Fredrick Deboer, the club’s instigator, does a good job outlining the many strengths of Eco’s most famous novel – the popular and academic appeal, the respectful and loving satire of founders and early innovators of the genre. I plan on following along with Deboer’s winter book club and highly recommend you do too. Eco’s novels are challenging at times, but among the most rewarding reads you’re likely to encounter.
I first read The Name of the Rose during my first semester at Bloomington. It was an assigned text as part of a class called Cloak and Dagger: Spy and Detective Fiction. The class was wonderful, everything a naive freshman thinks college will be. (Cloak and Dagger was a particular delight when compared to some of the literature I was assigned my senior year of high school – Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, the non-zombie edition. The reading list was brutal and all the silly girls in the class wouldn’t shut up about Mr. Darcy.) In Cloak and Dagger, the class read Poe, Doyle, discussed the conventions of Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming. (A quick note about Fleming: I adore the Bond movies, even the cheesy ones, i.e. most of them. However, until this class, I had never read the novels. They are delightful, but let me especially recommend The Spy Who Loved Me. The book bears no relation to the movie beyond the shared title, and is the most satisfying of the Bond canon.) Anyway, my apologies. Can you tell I have a thing for parentheticals? All this is to say that The Name of the Rose was the culmination of a semester of clandestine capers and murders most foul.
Since then, I’ve come to appreciate the conventions of the murder mystery, and the way many writers bend or subsume them. Few murder stories match up to The Name of the Rose, however, reading it in a critical setting and among its literary family sparked another interest – medieval history, and historical theology. Eco addresses both with utmost seriousness. Indeed, the two (and let’s be clear that studying medieval history requires something more than a cursory glance at medieval theology) are driving forces of the plot, not mere window dressing to good story. Rereading The Name of the Rose after college, I was struck by In fact,
In The Name of the Rose, Eco not only writes compellingly about a world of which I knew little, practically demanding that I dig deeper into his truly fascinating world, he also masterfully integrates one of my favorite literary conventions – the book about books! How could a then-18 year old not relate the episodes of William and Adso as they race around the labyrinthine monastery library, to his own meanderings in the Research Tower of Wells Library, whose tight, tall shelves seem to exhume wisdom and invite adventure? The plunge into the historical development of theology laid a lot of the ground work for my transition from the Enlightenment born, American bred tradition (yes, CoCers, you do have a tradition) of the Churches of Christ, to my current home within the “treasures of the Anglican Patrimony.” (Pope Benedict’s words, not mine.)
How valid is any of this reflection? Have I remembered it right? I’m not sure. Can I really say that an Italian murder mystery caused me to leave the fundamentalist religion of my upbringing? Perhaps. Just as I write this, I realize that projecting so much power onto a book without even mentioning the people who’ve helped on the road to Canterbury and more generally is folly. But writing about people, at least in this juncture of my life, is too intimate. It is safer to write about books.
I don’t know where on a Top Ten list of Important Books to Me The Name of the Rose should fall. So for now, I shall place it in the middle at number 5 and as I add more books, I can reevaluate its place.