A new version of a book you should have already read.
I have a very special relationship with my local library. It’s as complicated as the library is labyrinthine. Say I check out a few items for the weekend, maybe David Grand’s The Disappearing Body, the Lord of the Dance soundtrack, and, I don’t know, a videotape of The Gods Must Be Crazy II. After I’m finished with these items, I return them. When I myself return to the library, Bifocals Grayhair tells me that the David Grand book is overdue. So I pull it off their shelf, and she says, with embarrassment, they must’ve forgotten to check it back in. A week or so later, I return, and she tells me that the David Grand book is overdue.
Yes, in libraries, there is a level of mystery that only the finest logician could decipher. Now drop that inscrutable library into a fourteenth-century Italian abbey, and you have Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (Everyman’s Library, $25). Brother William of Baskerville and his assistant, Adso (a.k.a. the narrator of the book), have been requisitioned to the abbey to solve a heresy problem within the walls of the friary. While they’re monking about, several murders occur. Of course, with it being 1327 anno Domini, the monks want to jump to attributing demonic causes for the deaths, while William uses his powers of logic to attempt rational explanations. He is unabashedly the Sherlock Holmes of Franciscan friars, the Ordo Fratrum Minorum, as it were.
Do mysterious dead bodies and a lot of talk about Jesus bring The Da Vinci Code to mind? I don’t know; I didn’t read it. Everyone tells me that the story is awesome, but the writing is “eghh” (while they do that so-so hand motion). But great authors are not great because they put murder mysteries in new and improved places; they are great because of their prose. Take this, as William responds to a monk’s accusation that his glasses might be evil: “… this is holy magic, to which the learned must devote themselves more and more, not only to discover new things but also to rediscover many secrets of nature that divine wisdom had revealed to the Hebrew, the Greeks, to other ancient peoples, and even, today, to the infidels.”
The Name of the Rose is a book about reading and interpreting signs, and in this sense, William of Baskerville connotes the thoughts of another Franciscan friar, William of Occam, who basically said that if you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. With Eco’s mind-boggling scholasticism (he has more than 30 honorary doctorates), The Name of the Rose reinvigorates the lamed whodunit. — J.D. Reid