First published in English translation in 1983, it is an incredibly well-realized piece of historical fiction, a suspenseful and riveting mystery, and a genuinely deep consideration of many serious theological and philosophical concerns. The novel is that rare critical and commercial success that deserves both. Nothing diminishes a deserving piece of art more than overpraise, but with a book such as this one, I often forget myself.
In a companion book, The Key to the Name of the Rose (of which I will talk about in a bit), Thomas Cahill calls TNOTR "one of the most popular non-popular books ever written." In that, he reflects on both the book’s staggering commercial success– Library Journal, by way of Wikipedia, has it at over 50 million copies sold– and its rare status as legitimately standing between the worlds of serious literature and fast-paced popular novel. This kind of book makes us reject such a binary, of course, but either way, the book is at once eminently readable and resolutely difficult– complex, allusive, uncompromising. Famously, Eco leaves many bits of untranslated Latin scattered throughout the book, with a dose of French and German for good measure. Typically, the Latin amounts to a few words and phrases, but it is not uncommon for Eco to leave a healthy chunk untranslated at a time.This is only to point out again that there is something miraculous about the book’s popular success. This is a book which rewards its readers, but those rewards don’t come free. That so many have felt that a long journey through often dense philosophical and historical information can be a deeply enjoyable experience should encourage those of us who take reading seriously. That Dan Brown could ape so many of the thematic, dramatic, and poetic elements of Eco’s work while discarding the philosophical substance that underlay them, twenty years later and to even greater popular acclaim, well– I suppose that’s life.
Sounds like fun to me. A good read for the Christmas season; anything to drag us away from the shallows of commercialism and petty politics, down into deeper waters. The club starts (tentatively) on December 7th. Freddie has some more on the structure of the club here.