And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

fredag 19. februar 2016

Epitaph for Umberto Eco - or, a personal history of reading

I do not usually indulge in public displays of grief upon the passing of renowned individuals, but I will make one of my exceptions in this case, since it concerns one of the most important authors in my life.

Umberto Eco is dead, at only 84 years, in the year after his last book, Numero Zero, was published. I was immediately grief-stricken when I heard this news, because I owe a considerable amount of my intellectual development to him.

I picked up my first book by Umberto Eco when I was 19, and I did so at an important crossroad in my life. I had just finished senior high, which in Norway covers ages 16-19, and I was about to enter into a much bigger world than I had hitherto known, a world beyond my village which is inhabited by c.400 people on a good day. I had signed up for a six-month service in the home guard starting in January 2007, as Norway still practices conscription, and I thought that that would give me time to get it over with before starting at university. Before leaving for the army, however, and while most of my friends and classmates from senior high went off to their respective adventures, I stayed home and worked with my parents on my ancestral farm, taking care of sundry duties that come with such a position.

Having been a bibliophile all my life, I was eager to spend as much time of this gap-year as I could among books. I had started to expand my literary horizon, and I began reading the books of an author whose name I had only recently become aware of through various magazines. I no longer remember which of the books I read first, whether The Name of the Rose or The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, but I remember reading both with great joy, and I kept reading Eco's novels, and, when I had been turned away from the army due to poor eyesight, I kept on reading until I had finished all his novels.

I was too young to get all the finer intellectual points or much of the intellectual humour of Eco's writing, and I didn't possess enough knowledge to take most of the references. But the stories, and the intertextuality and even multimodality of Eco's works whetted my intellectual appetite and expanded my ideas about prose, narrative, intertextuality and history. I had always been interested in history, and that enthusiasm encouraged me to read on despite my then relatively scant knowledge of the Middle Ages.

I began reading the works of Umberto Eco at a crucial point in my life. This was after my intellectual horizon and ambition had been amplified through senior high, and it was before I began the great intellectual challenge of university life. Eco's novels gave me an intellectual foundation and several literary reference points which allowed me to engage with university life with a sense of familiarity that I would probably not have possessed had it not been for those novels, and as such they gave me a good starting point in an environment that to many can be estranging. Moreover, the novels of Umberto Eco were also so different from what I had read before that it most likely made me realize, or at least accept, that I was beginning on something new, something bigger.

Reading Umberto Eco changed the way I thought about several things, and I owe very much of my intellectual development to his novels, to his playfulness, to his way of talking about books, to him as a person who embodies what he preaches yet who doesn't preach. My intellect matured while reading his novels, and my intellect matured at an important time in my life, as that maturity gave me the ambition to go beyond a BA degree and continue to challenge myself.

Umberto Eco is not the only author to have brought me to my present position, far from it, but his humour, his intelligence, and his storytelling laid the foundation of my intellectual life and continue to nourish me even to this day.

The passing of Umberto Eco is to me a great tragedy because I owe him so very much, and yet I never got around to telling him. Now I never will, and that adds a great deal more to the sorrow.

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