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Monday, 16 July 2007

Umberto Eco's On Literature (2005) follows his best-known work, The Name of the Rose (1983), by over two decades, but he's still talking about it. He would. According to the newer book, Eco has 40,000 books in his collection distributed over several houses. The medieval crime novel did his bank balance no harm.

The new book is a collection of addresses he made at events, usually those held by universities. They are part occasional pieces (he talks about what other presenters said) and part scholarship. The simple style he uses is deceptive; what he says so simply is clearly the result of a lifetime of intense study. Books Eco read at the age of twelve would frighten an average reader.

His heroes include Joyce and Borges. And Dante, for obvious reasons. Few who read for leisure will be moved to buy a copy of Dante's Paradiso (the final volume of The Divine Comedy -- not a title Dante himself would have used being, rather, testimony to the esteem the work has garnered over centuries). But his observations on Joyce strike closer to home.

Granted, many readers would find Finnegan's Wake extremely challenging. Nevertheless, Eco makes sense of it. His trick in comparing the goals of Joyce and Dante (to invent a universal language) comes off. Eco is devastatingly well-read. This also allows him to place the work of Borges in the context of Western culture.

But I found Eco a little tiresome when he talks of doubles and labyrinths. Such tropes have gathered so much baggage over recent years that you wish for something a little fresher.

Eco's discussion of Oscar Wilde's wit, apart from demonstrating the scholar's deep reading, is pleasant going compared to some of the pieces in this book.

I would certainly recommend On Literature to those who take books seriously. It will help make connections you never made, like watching a fireworks display: the colours combine in new and unexpected patterns.

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