Jason Pettus's Reviews > The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
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it was amazing

(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

The CCLaP 100: In which I read a hundred so-called "classics" and then write reports on whether or not I think they deserve the label
Book #7: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

The story in a nutshell:
In one of the more fascinating stories of how a novelist was first drawn to his profession, scholar Umberto Eco was actually an Italian history professor and Medieval expert for years before ever turning to creative writing; according to legend, it was his thrilling and exacting retelling of actual Dark Age stories that inspired his friends to keep urging him to write a novel based in those times, which he finally did in the late 1970s. As such, then, The Name of the Rose is a bizarre amalgam that you scarcely ever find in contemporary literature -- a genre actioner (murder mystery) with a lot of melodramatic elements at its core, but at the same time a detailed historical look at actual 1300s Europe, with a big part of the reason to read this book being so that one can be exposed to the meticulous detail of Eco's prose on the subject, from the period's clothing and architecture to its religious structures and philosophies. But on top of this, turns out that Eco is a postmodernist and accomplished semiotics expert as well, turning the book not just into a potboiler mystery and historical novel but indeed an entire thesis on the nature of language itself, on the meaning behind symbols, and on why human behavior repeats itself so often no matter which age you study, and no matter what the rationale behind such behavior during any given age.

Plotwise it's the story of a Franciscan monk named William of Baskerville, which is just the start of the sly references to Sherlock Holmes Eco deliberately inserts; turns out that William is also British, a champion of logic and deductive reasoning, and even has a clueless teenage assistant named Adso who stands in symbolically for the equally clueless audience. William is in Italy, helping a fellow monk investigate a mysterious death in the fortified abbey where the man leads; turns out, in fact, that this is one of the largest and most renowned of all the Christian Dark-Age monastery libraries, attracting an international team of egghead monks and a scholarly atmosphere more akin to modern universities. Both the novel and the investigation take place over seven days at this fortress/abbey, where William and Adso spend their time gathering clues, pontificating on all kinds of subjects that intellectuals in the 1300s pontificated on, and examining in detail such historical details as the church's then-ongoing debate over whether it's better to be rich or poor, as well as why the Benedictine monks and the Franciscan ones hated each other so intensely back then in the first place. This being a murder mystery, of course, the actual plot is something best left for the reader to discover on their own, although I'll warn you that the actual "whodunit" part isn't very suspenseful; as mentioned above, the real point of this being a murder mystery is for Eco to show just how similarly humans behaved back then as we do now, even as the times themselves inspire completely different motivations and excuses. (So in other words, a lot less "I love my baby's mamma" in the 1300s, a lot more "The devil made me do it.")

The argument for it being a classic:
Fans of this novel (and there are a whole lot of them; it's hard to dislike this book, frankly) argue that this book deserves the "classic" label more quickly than a lot of other contemporary novels do (after all, the book's only 27 years old at this point), precisely because it deals with issues from an age of classics; so in other words, because it's set in Medieval times, is written in Dark Age vernacular and includes historical details worthily accurate of the respected academe Eco is, fans claim that of course The Name of the Rose will eventually be a classic, such a foregone conclusion that we might as well declare it one now. Ah, but there's also a much stronger argument for this being considered a classic right now; as mentioned, many of those who study the esoteric academic field of semiotics claim that the novel is a perfect example of what they do, explained in layman's terms so that non-academes can finally get it. As such, then, these people claim that The Name of the Rose is not just an exciting DaVinci-Code-style historical thriller, but also a densely layered examination of stories about stories about stories, of symbols about symbols about symbols, of the meaning behind meaning behind meaning. Yeah, see what they mean when they say that semiotics is a hard thing to explain to the general public?

The argument against:
The main argument against this being a classic seems to be one brought up a lot with well-written yet contemporary books ("contemporary" in this case being any less than half a century old) -- that the book is simply too new to be able to reasonably judge whether it should rightly be called a timeless classic, one of those fabled "books you should read before you die." For just one example, when The Name of the Rose first came out in 1980, it was the first time anyone had ever tried setting a rational Holmesian-style mystery story within a Medieval monastery; in the years since, we've had all kinds of projects on the subject, including a popular weekly BBC/Masterpiece series. It's a great book, even its critics are quick to point out, even if somewhat on the dry side at points (ugh, all those debates about papal decrees); but who's to say if anyone's going to even remember this novel a hundred years from now, or the notoriously spotty career Eco has since had as a novelist. (Don't forget, Eco is mostly a scholar and historian; although considered a rockstar in the academic world, his reputation as a writer of fiction is much more contentious.)

My verdict:
So let's make it clear right off the bat -- that from a pure entertainment standpoint, The Name of the Rose is one of the most delightful novels I've read in years, years. It's funny, it's smart, it's insightful, it's thrilling, it's nerdy; Cheese And Rice, it's everything a lover of books could possibly ever want from a well-done one. But is it a classic? Well, unfortunately, I think I'm going to have to agree with the critics on this one; that although it could very well become a classic one day, one of those Catcher in the Rye style "one-hit wonders" that populate so many lists, I think it's simply too early to make such a call either in a positive or negative way, especially considering Eco's otherwise spotty career as a novelist. That's part of the point of "classics" lists existing, after all, and why those who care about such lists take them so seriously; because ultimately such a designation should reflect not only how good a book itself is, but how well it's stood the test of time, of how relevant it's continued to be to generation after generation, of how timeless the author's style and word-choice. One always has to be careful when adding newish books to such lists, especially novels less than 30 years old, because we have no idea at this point how such books are going to stand the test of time; load up your classics list with such titles, and your list suddenly becomes worthless fluff, as relevant and important as a whole evening of handing out freakin' Quill Awards. It's for this reason that I'm excluding The Name of the Rose from my own personal Canon, although still highly encourage all of you to actually read it, just from the standpoint of pure enjoyment.

Is it a classic? Not yet
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
March 1, 2008 – Finished Reading
March 11, 2008 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-11 of 11 (11 new)

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message 1: by Jim (new)

Jim Nice review, Jason!

Richard Just out of curiosity, have you read and/or evaluated Hesse's The Glass Bead Game ?

message 3: by Jason (last edited Feb 27, 2009 05:53PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jason Pettus Richard wrote: "Just out of curiosity, have you read and/or evaluated Hesse's "The Glass Bead Game ..."

No, I've never even heard of it. What from my review made you think of it?

message 4: by Richard (last edited Feb 27, 2009 06:38PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Richard Well, since Herman Hesse's Nobel Prize award cited it, you might want to check it out. I mention it because it is seen by many today as an inaccessible and over-intellectual work (not the page turner that Name of the Rose is, admittedly). I get the sense that few read it today, even though at the time it was considered his masterpiece.

Eco's wears his erudition on his sleeve in The Name of the Rose much as Hesse did, and I think that contributed mightily to the elitist appeal of Hesse's book. On further thought, it might be more similar to Eco's Foucault's Pendulum -- a much less accessible book than Name.

message 5: by Ruth (new) - added it

Ruth Makes me want to read this book. Great review.

message 6: by Chad (new)

Chad Sayban Thank you for the wonderful review.

message 7: by Renata (new)

Renata Good review Jason and choice of classic vs non-classic very well justified. I also agree it's a very good book with potential to become a classic but it feels weird to classify as that after not so many years of it firts publishing. But at the same time I wonder how books we consider as a classic now were view on the time the were published. Some of them must has been classified as an original masterpiece since the beggining. Any comments?

Natalia Thank you for the review! I especially appreciated the for and against, including other people's thoughts on the book's status as a classic. I enjoy reviews that move beyond "it's good" and "it sucks." Again, thank you.

message 9: by Kat (new) - rated it 5 stars

Kat I always considered it a classic, but now that I read your review, I can see your point. Perhaps there should be a sub-category of Modern Classic? ;-) This is an amazing work, and I recently discovered that there is a translation of all the Latin in the book. I remember being so frustrated that I couldn't understand every bit

Monty Smith Good review. Though I find it a hard read at times, and have to re-read so many pages, but nevertheless I enjoyed the journey so much... Maybe it's time to read it again.

message 11: by Alex (new) - rated it 4 stars

Alex Great review, although I do feel the need to ask 'Why care if a book is to be considered a classic or not?' Why care if one hundred years from now, when you'll most probably be dead, people will still be chatting about it? Simply enjoying the book and discussing it with your friends seems like more than enough.
That having been said, and keeping in mind the fact that this was my first contact with Eco's writings, which of his books should I grab next? (I was thinking on Foucault' Pendulum, as it seems to be his second most popular release).

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