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On Literature

3.9 of 5 stars 3.90  ·  rating details  ·  1,383 ratings  ·  56 reviews
In this collection of essays and addresses delivered over the course of his illustrious career, Umberto Eco seeks "to understand the chemistry of [his] passion" for the word. From musings on Ptolemy and "the force of the false" to reflections on the experimental writing of Borges and Joyce, Eco's luminous intelligence and encyclopedic knowledge are on dazzling display thro ...more
Hardcover, 334 pages
Published December 6th 2004 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published 2002)
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Scribble Orca
Apr 27, 2013 Scribble Orca rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: writers, fans of Eco, literature reviewers
Shelves: literary
Seen this film by Luc Besson?

A 21 hour plane trip is usually the only chance I have to watch a few films. The last long journey I made offered such a dismal selection that for this trip I was already packed with every single one of those books on my 'currently reading' list and determined to finish each (and write a review) whilst on the first and longest leg of my two sector flight.

The best laid plans of ants and a person.

I decided to start with Umberto Eco, and following my fickle habit, I ope
Questo è il mio primo tentativo di scrivere una recensione in italiano, soprattutto per rispettare la mia decisione di scrivere "i review" nella lingua in cui ho letto l’opera. Chiedo scusa a priori per le goffaggini stilistiche e ringrazio molto la mia carissima amica che ha avuto pazienza di leggere in anticipo questo testo (però non questa nota in cui gli errori sono tutti miei!)

Cominciando con un’opinione generale su Alcune funzioni della letteratura per finire con un resoconto personale e
Arun Divakar
Umberto Eco has been an author whose works I have been trying to finish albeit unsuccessfully for quite some time now. I have tried twice to finish 'Name of the rose' but gave up half way in the process for want of a better reason. Foucault's Pendulum was no better either. The books seemed to mock me ' you need to read much better than this to get to us, boyo !!' was what they seemed to tell me. Every time at the library I pause at the rack on Eco's books and think "Should I ? or Should I not ? ...more
A mixed bag; ceremonial talks at awards ceremonies probably aren't where a scholar produces his best work. He's at his dullest talking about the authors he admires, like Joyce or Borges (and outright useless talking about ones he doesn't, like Oscar Wilde), and at his best talking about things like the persistent influence of Aristotle's Poetics in modern ideas about narrative, or the rhetorical structures in The Communist Manifesto. I just like the fact that he's one of those rare figures (his ...more
If you only I have time to read a few of the essays in this book, read the following:

1) On the Style of the Communist Manifesto
2) On Symbolism
3) On Style
4) Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading
5) The American Myth in Three Anti-American Generations

These are, in my opinion, the best of an excellent set of essays.
I understand Mr. Eco is one complex dude, but when you're writing about literature please keep the sentences to less than four dependent clauses. Sheesh...
Alex Lee
This collection of essays highlights what a fascinating and active mind Umberto Eco has. His appreciation of knowledge, literature and the written arts shines brilliantly through each page. Some of these essays are a bit erudite but Eco's characteristic wit, charm and thoroughly creative reasoning shows us a path through the fogginess of such discussion.

While the essays start off more academic than not (the essays feel chronologically ordered), Eco seems to come out onto his own by the end, talk
Luciana Darce
Toda vez que leio Eco, fico meio atarantada. Sinto-me assim um tanto socrática, repetindo para mim mesma "só sei que nada sei". Ele exercita minha humildade ao me fazer dar conta de um mundo de coisas sobre as quais, até então, não tinha refletido; um mundo de livros que ainda não li e que, de repente, fico morrendo de vontade de conhecer.

Confesso que um dos meus grandes sonhos de consumo é assistir uma aula ou palestra de signore Eco ao vivo.

Tudo isso me voltou esse fim de semana enquanto lia o
There're altogether 18 titles in this paperback, in fact, I liked its hardcover at first sight (same pictorial cover design) but it's unreasonably costly to me. So a few months later, I could buy this Vintage and read some interesting few, therefore, I'd write my comments from what I scribbled while reading. For instance:

1. On Some Functions of Literature
Professor Umberto wrote this exposition worth reading and reflecting, thus, for some readers whose mind filled with boredom should find this pi
Jean Tessier
The book is a collection of essays written by Umberto Eco for various conferences.

On Some Functions of Literature (2000)

Literature keeps language alive. It creates a shared body of stories and characters. Different authors each given them their own spin, but their core is part of the collective consciousness.

A Reading of the Paradiso (2000)

Paradiso is about light, which was an important concept to medieval readers and thinkers. Cathedrals are all about different kinds of light. We don't pay
The book is a collection of rewritten essays on literature from the past 20 to 30 years. The range of topics in the book is vast and for someone who (me) is neither an expert nor a student of the field, some of them are beyond difficult to follow. However, the essays that deal with Eco's own novels and other familiar books are very enjoyable. What I appreciate the most is the chance to learn how someone with actual knowledge of the history and literary references understands the mentioned books. ...more
Read with Eco's Six Walks in the Fictional Woods for a pretty good idea of Eco's poetics. Both books examine the limits of what can be done by the author through examining the experience of the reader. This collection doesn't really get going until about 100 pages in, with its pair of essays on Borges, but after those first 100 pages, it is a delight (and he explains a bit about why one can have 100 pages that might not interest the reader, because his ideas about the "model reader" and writing ...more
Stephen Wong
I hadn't read again Umberto Eco since Foucault's Pendulum about twenty years ago. And I think now that I was a naive reader back then. This summer was spent in some widening horizons in literature this time. (I remember last summer I was in the middle of reading Proust's reading of John Ruskin.) This anthology of Eco's other writings serves to bring the journey home from the expanse of the travels of an interested writer, that is, interested in his craft, but also fully didactic unto the reader ...more
"On Literature" opened my eyes to the horizons of literary criticism. (Caveat: I knew nothing about lit-crit then, and still know next to nothing about it now.)

Eco combines several essays - each focused on one book (most of which I still haven't read) and on a particularly striking aspect of this book.

Reading "On Literature", you are led into the dark and imposing forest of literature and suddenly realize that it's not as tangled and incomprehensible as you imagined.

One of the essays explores th
Siskoid Albert
I don't know why, but I don't really want to read fiction these days. I'm all about essays. My latest read was Umberto Eco's On Literature, a collection of literary essays (often reworked from talks) published in 2002. Eco's engaging, personalized style makes for interesting reading even when you don't know anything about the book or books discussed or referenced, which happens rather a lot because of his Italian point of view. Works integral to Italian culture aren't always familiar to the Engl ...more
Selbst, wenn man nicht immer bei allem mitgeht, was der Mann sagt, muß man den locker-flockigen Stil lieben, mit dem er seine Wissenschaft betreibt. Ich könnte meine literaturwissenschaftlichen Arbeiten ständig mit Zitaten von ihm beginnen lassen, so idiomatisch schreibt er.
Harold Bloom Jr
Umberto Eco's ON LITERATURE is another literary treat. These are three hundred pages of sublime thoughts from the superstar academic-novelist. What I loved about this book is how Eco really goes in to the technical aspects of storytelling.

There are useful chapters on the 'functions of literature', style, symbolism and irony.

My favourite chapter is called 'How I Write' where Umberto Eco writes about how he ended up writing most of his successful novels, especially THE NAME OF THE ROSE.

And the
Marie Sweetman
Very dense and not infrequently pretentious, but his essays are always interesting and persuasive.
Mike Russo
A solid collection of Eco's writings about, well, literature -- most of the essays concern works that are less familiar to the American reader (well, to me, at least), which is both good and bad (good because of expanding horizons, bad because you don't get a sense of the works outside of Eco's arguments). They range from being broadly-accessible examinations of particular works to more theoretical papers (thankfully light on the capital-t Theory), but what's probably most interesting are the pi ...more
loved this. always love books about books. he mentions maybe around 75 books here the majority i hadnt read or heard of but had read a good dozen that hes spoken about so it was interesting hearing his perspectives on them. the chapter where he talks about the name of the rose is really interesting and how he writes and how he prepares for sometimes 2 years researching, and drawing and taking pictures and notes was incredible. its inspired me to do the same with my book. very scientific approach ...more
Sannie Hald
Only read a chapter but I'm going to buy the book. So interesting.
I really enjoyed this collection of essays and I would have given it 5 stars except for just not knowing what he was talking about on occasion. That is not really his fault, of course, but is due to my own lack of education/experience.

Some of my favorite essays were "On Some Functions of Literature," "Borges and My Anxiety of Influence," "On Symbolism," "Intertextual Irony and Levels of Reading," "The Power of Falsehood" and "How I Write." Many of the others were also quite excellent.

The depth
Octavio Solis
I agree with some of the assessments. It's hit and miss. Some of the essays and speeches are fascinating and give insight into the writer's process, but some seem so obtuse and refer to such obscure literary figures and their works that they fairly slide off the mental palette. Still, Mr. Eco has such a playful mind and a true love of the intellect, that the bulk of these writings never fail to spark within us some ideas about how the mystery of narrative works. That made this book a keep on my ...more
I'm totally torn about this book. It's a book of Umberto Eco essays/lectures about specific books, literature in general, and the process of writing, but I'm so split on it. There were some essays that were absolutely fabulous, but others that I was soooo bored during. However, my life isn't really any better for having read it, so I think that's the deciding factor: there were some interesting parts, but I don't think I gained anything major by reading it.
Eco cites Borges as a major influence, and it's clear fun to read his linking of Borges, the possible world of the possible library, incontrovertible facts in fiction, hypertext, Dante, Wilde, and on. A fine mind, if far more 'academic' than Borges. Good criticism here; if you are averse to semiotics, you may not like it so much, but Eco draws creative threads and reminds us that a society without literature is a poor one indeed.
Bryan Szabo

Eco reminds me of many things, but this most of all: that which I have read is but a drop in the bucket. There are moments in these essays that make this point more obvious (especially since Eco addresses his readers as though they are familiar, even intimately so, with the works--even the arcane ones--under discussion. Still, his erudition and clear delight vis-a-vis the written word is inspiring.
I like reading Eco on his writing and on language in general. He takes an infectuous delight in language, as a reader and as an author. Other than the Name of the Rose I have not managed to finish any of his novels, but am fascinated by the processes he lays out in this book, and in Mouse or Rat, another non-fiction book by him about translation.
So far this is magnificent. The volume represents a varied collection of Eco's thoughts on a general theme - as you might guess from the title. The title also recollects the titles of many classical, medieval, and renaissance works whose influence can be felt in Eco's own thinking.

More on this as I have time to write and finish the book. . . .
What I understood was fantastic. But it quickly became clear that Dottore Eco is way smarter than me, and I have two Master's degrees in literature and writing. His _Reflections on The Name of the Rose_ is a more accessible entry into his writing about writing. Still, I found parts of this invaluable.
Sometimes obscure or a little boring or odd, the essays of Umberto Eco are always erudite and thought provoking. Read past the first essay, if you pick this up, it's sort of a stinker (and a little all over the place) and the rest of the collection is worth it.
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  • The Uses of Literature
  • A Reader on Reading
  • Lectures on Literature
  • The Art of the Novel
  • 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel
  • The Anatomy of Bibliomania
  • Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics
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  • Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life
  • Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays
  • The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life
  • Literary Theory: An Introduction
  • S/Z
  • The Art of Fiction: Illustrated from Classic and Modern Texts
  • A Literature Of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë To Lessing
  • Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love
Umberto Eco is an Italian writer of fiction, essays, academic texts, and children's books, and certainly one of the finest authors of the twentieth century. A professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, Eco’s brilliant fiction is known for its playful use of language and symbols, its astonishing array of allusions and references, and clever use of puzzles and narrative inventions. His per ...more
More about Umberto Eco...
The Name of the Rose Foucault's Pendulum History of Beauty Baudolino On Ugliness

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“There is only one thing that you write for yourself, and that is a shopping list.” 8 likes
“To emend one's thinking constantly is a desirable practice, and one I often engage in--sometimes to the point of being almost schizophrenic. But there are cases where one should not parade changes just to prove one is up to date. In the field of ideas, as much as in other fields, monogamy is not necessarily a sign of absence of libido.” 4 likes
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