A Tough Read

I spent the last month or more slogging my way through Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before.  As usual for an Eco novel, I find myself torn.

On the one hand, he has an interesting narrative with an interesting character in an interesting situation.

On the other hand, you have hundreds of pages (I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say literally half the book) that delves into philosophical and scientific questions of the mid 17th century.

Now, admittedly, some of the philosophical and scientific discourse does add to the character, but a lot of it feels like long-winded rambling from someone who finds it all fascinating and thinks that the reader should too.  In all honesty, though, by the time we got to the fifth argument that the Catholic church used to use as to why the Earth was the center of the universe, I just didn’t care any more, since the conversation was tangential to the action of the moment, as one character was learning to swim.

The fact that I finished the book is evidence (in my mind) that it was worth reading.  At the same time, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone that doesn’t have a serious interest in philosophy and its history.

Eco’s books are always dense, so its possible that this book, like Foucault’s Pendulum, won’t shine until a second reading.

Having finished Eco, I thought I’d go with something much lighter, so I’m reading Sputnick Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami.  While Murakami can get philosophical, he is less prone to massive digressions than Eco.

Or, perhaps I just find Murakami’s digressions closer to what I think about.


~ by truth9 on October 13, 2007.

7 Responses to “A Tough Read”

  1. This really isn’t giving me incentive to read any Umberto.

  2. Heh, well, maybe not. I would recommend some of his short essays, though his books can be tough.

  3. I think it all depends on your level of interest in what the protagonists interests are in any given Eco story. He seems to often write characters that become absorbed and obsessed in one particular area. And delves so deeply and completely into that, it can be a bit . . . well, ridiculous at times. I found Foucault’s Pendulum a great read, but that’s largely because I found the subject matter interesting. But then the Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, I couldn’t really care less about his never ending childhood nostalgia. Now reading the Name of the Rose, I think I’m sitting somewhere in between. I have yet to read any of his short essays, though.

  4. A few thoughts…

    First off, in regards to comments about MFQL, it’s unfair to call an amnesiac’s quest for identity a “never ending childhood nostalgia”. That quest is the FRAMEWORK that should be studied to get at what the author was attempting to express rather than any personal experiences of the author, although Eco certainly is using his own life as source material. (However, I’ll parenthetically agree that this particular subject matter was much more difficult to get into than any other of Eco’s.) Just as this search for lost memories was the drive or thrust of this novel, it’s the “conspiracy” surrounding the subject matter of Foucault’s Pendulum and the murders interrupting sublime meditations in The Name of the Rose that kept me intrigued.

    The question “how could this possibly relate to the story?” has never arisen in my reading of Eco. Without giving too much of the plot away, I’d argue Eco was using his own memories, that is, the amnesiac’s, as a microcosm of humanity’s cultural memory and what it means in the face of oblivion and whether or not these cultural artifacts are worthy of our attention or just a fatal distraction. Read in this fashion, the Flame may be a bit more interesting and can be easily compared to Finnegan’s Wake. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.

    I guess I’ve just seen Eco’s subject matter as an avenue through impossibly large questions which help give any possible small answers more meaning and shape. If anything, like Jon suggested, Eco gets easier the more you re-read him. Which makes me want to give the Flame another shot right now.

    And about characters being obsessed with one particular area? Be thankful Eco sticks to one particular area! Could you imagine what a book of his would be like if he just went loose? Yikes…he’d might even give Joyce a run for his money.

    I’d agree from what little I’ve read of Murakami that his digressions are certainly more conservative than Eco’s. In any case, I look forward to borrowing from your Eco collection Jon.

    And, uh, you can have your blog back.

  5. Mark, your words incentivize me.

  6. I would agree with Mark and Wes with regards to what the characters think about. The main character of “The Island of the Day Before” spends a lot of time thinking about a) the controversy related to the Earth’s place in the universe, b) the trouble that came with discovering longitude, c) a human’s place in the world in the context of the first two, and d) God’s place in the world in the context of the first two.

    There’s actually a really interesting narrative throughout, and I know how the narrative relates to the philosophy, but, man, Eco can go on!

  7. I’ll just do what I always do…*sips tea and nod at appropriate pauses*

    (Mark you should make a living out of critical essays)

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