Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: If the Reader Cares, They’ll Read it All. Even Latin.

Eco, from my meager understanding, was an extremely brilliant individual. Speaker of many tongues, student of many histories–i.e., a brainy dude. One can expect that when an intellectual someone wishes to write  a story set in the distant past, that someone will immerse in all aspects of the culture, and come forward with a riveting tale.

For the record, I LIKE The Name of the Rose. I do. But at the same time, I’m not sure how to feel about all of this:

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Just look at all those not-English words! I mean, I figured there would be some Latin. It is a mystery inside a monastery set in fourteenth century, after all. But I have my limits. And there are GOBS of sections like this. Was I warned? Yes. “You can usually get the gist from context, but then you miss out on crucial stuff. Keep a dictionary handy.”

Outwardly I gave an absent assent, but inwardly my mind is groaning as loud as a kid told she can’t lift shirts to poke belly buttons anymore. (Am I the only one who had a daughter go through this phase?) I read from 5-6am if work and/or kids permit. The last thing I want to do at 5am is conjugate a pluperfect verb and decipher which noun is in its ablative case. No. Thank You.

Thankfully I discovered a blog that did all the translations–Rapid Diffusion. This, I always kept handy when I read Eco, and yes, having the translations does make a difference.

So is it wrong to make readers work? No. Granted, the idea of translating all that Latin intimidated, but it did not deter. I still had my Latin books from high school, so I was totally ready…to contact my classmate who could translate Latin as she read it without notes or dictionaries or anything by the flipping brilliant age of 16. (Yeah, she’s pretty awesome.) I wanted to read this book. I knew this book was going to require more of me than other literary fare. I didn’t care. I wanted to read it. If my friend couldn’t help me, then (insert gulping sound) I would give the translating a go.

In an earlier post, I discussed Diana Wynne Jones’ lament over the dumbing-down of fiction for adults, while kids don’t mind working their brains to appreciate a story. When I first cracked open The Name of the Rose and saw all the Latin, I thought of this. Maybe translating several dozen pages’ worth of Latin is a touch extreme, but shouldn’t books written for adults be at least a LITTLE challenging? I like my chocolate muffins of fantasy or mystery, sure, but veg is good for the body AND the brain, and Eco provides a cornucopia of veg with this novel. Yeah, I had help with the Latin, but the history is so complexly woven with the mystery, and the dialogue so dense without action (a topic I very much want to discuss in another post) that my brain had to chew it all, slowly, before fully appreciating what it had just devoured.

904cea2232616.56012d54f1266I highly doubt I’ll ever write a period novel, but Eco helps me appreciate just how much world-building goes into recreating the past. Writers fill their worlds with what matters to the story; to pass over a description, a conversation, or a verse in another language is, well, rather akin to ignoring someone in conversation, isn’t it? Just, turning up the nose and continuing on with the person you like because he’s the interesting one.

No.

A writer should not overwhelm their story with innocuous minutia, and a reader should not skip around and still expect to understand the story without a hitch. Both parties must work, and work hard, to truly bring a book to life.

Click here for more on Umberto Eco.

Click here for more on THE NAME OF THE ROSE.

 

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19 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: If the Reader Cares, They’ll Read it All. Even Latin.

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I love the idea of making grown up books challenging, like a treasure hunt, requiring a bit of work. When I am reading, I am all about the language, the poetry and imagery, but for many people they love the history, the world that is being created, genealogies, the whole works.

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    • Thank you for your kind words! I enjoy the treasure hunt every now and again, too; I got the taste for it when I started reading Sherlock Holmes stories at age 8. I find John le Carre’ to be an excellent source of genre veg, too. 🙂

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  2. It is true – if the reader cares, he or she won’t miss any detail. Eco didn’t write in Latin just to entertain himself. These pages are important
    (PS: Our five years old still lets me do that )

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    • LOL! Well, grandmother’s have a lifetime pass to do that. It’s the kid who does that to strangers that’s another story…Story! Well…hmm. When I’m prepared to write of belly buttons in that much detail, there will be a story.
      ANYway, yes, you’re right. Books are considered “labors of love” for a reason–for reader and writer alike. 🙂

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  3. Great post! I also love Eco very much, and The Name of the Rose was the first of his books I read – luckily it was at a time when I was still at school where I´d learned latin 🙂 So I didn´t had to work as much at those passages as others might had to;) Have a great weekend! Sarah xoxo

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    • Thank you kindly. 🙂 I have a couple more posts on Eco, and it’s going to get touchy, I’m sure, because I disagree with his writing in one aspect. “Listen to me, the fledgling, as I critique the master.” Oy. But I’m going to do it! 🙂

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  4. No NO. It does not matter you are the fledgling. The hell with that. You say your piece. Tell you now Foucalt’s Pendulum was one of the few books I had to abandon. Just because someone is in print and respected and ticks 99 boxes, does not mean they tick 100.

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  5. `I highly doubt I’ll ever write a period novel, but Eco helps me appreciate just how much world-building goes into recreating the past´…

    I think your words are eloquent and they well describe Eco´s books… Great spotlight, dear Jean… All the best to you!, Aquileana 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you kindly! I’ve found that the more I write about what I read, the more I learn from them. (Obvious, I know, but as one who skimmed nearly every book she read in her schooling years, this lesson is new and refreshing. 🙂

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