Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Name of the Rose takes place in fourteenth century Italy, chronicling a bizarre series of deaths at a rural monastery and their unlikely cause. Brother William is a British monk who has played a key role in the Inquisition, and his Sherlock Holmes-esque use of logic and deduction makes him the perfect man to investigate the murders at the abbey. He brings along a green novice, Brother Adso, who narrates the tale for us. After the initial death of a troubled monk, Adelmo, six more deaths ensue, and each one seems more cryptic than the last. The abbey houses a heavily guarded library, which turns out to be a labyrinth with a secret access point through a crypt (I KNOW, CREEPY much?). In the end, we discover that the murders were all part of an attempt to protect a secret book, a supposed sequel of sorts to Aristotle's Poetics, but William and Adso's efforts to recover the tome are in vain. The murderer eats the (what we now realize are) poisoned pages of the book when his secret is unraveled, and a misstep in the ensuing chase knocks over a lamp and sets the library (and eventually the whole abbey) ablaze (whoopsydaisy!). Adso and William leave the next day, and the book closes with Adso returning after many years to collect the morsels of books that remain in the ashen ruins.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I first read this book in my "Introduction to Comparative Literature" class in freshman year with Professor Maud McInerney at Haverford College, which played an integral role in me choosing to major in Comp Lit. Professor McInerney was hands down my favorite professor in college, so in retrospect, my affection for this book may have been influenced by my affinity for Maud. At any rate, it held up fairly well, though I found the diatribes on papal politics and various factions of friars to be distracting and dull this time around. We read it in Intro to Comp Lit as a sort of encyclopedia with piles of layers, and we read each chapter slowly and with hefty annotations, which made it kind of like a group treasure hunt. Normally, I don't enjoy reading books like that, and as a rule for this blog (and life) I ask books to stand alone, so that wasn't an option here. In this book's case, though, I think that's definitely the way to go. If you have a chance to read it with a class, or are willing to spend a good chunk of time looking things up on your own, then I say go for it! If not, be prepared to sift through a good deal of history, Latin, and confusing terminology and just shake your head and move on through.

It's all Greek to me.
I have mixed feelings on the use of other languages in books. On the one hand, knowing French and some Latin, understanding snippets in those languages makes me feel like I'm part of an exclusive club. On the other hand, I hate that writing in other languages intentionally excludes readers who don't know those languages. Mommy, I know you love Latin, and you read and understand a good deal of it; however, Mr. Eco, Latin is not high on the list of known languages for the 20th/21st century reading populace (even in your home country of Italy), so do you think you could do us a solid and at least provide translation footnotes? Eh?

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? 
"Only the librarian has, in addition to that knowledge, the right to move through the labyrinth of the books, he alone knows where to find them and where to replace them, he alone is responsible for their safekeeping." I loved the mystique of the librarian, and the idea that someone the mainstream casts as a pretty safe, stodgy sort of breed held such immense and incredible power over knowledge back then.

William's thoughts on torture:
"Under torture you are as if under the dominion of those grasses that produce visions...Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him. Let me tell you, the white heat of truth comes from another flame." I am staunchly against torture, but I found the (fabricated and fictional, but historically informed) philosophy on its usage in the Inquisition to be enlightening and surprisingly multidimensional.

Maybe Adso has sleep apnea, too!
Adso describes how he feels after a daytime nap in this way: "I felt dull and somnolent, for daytime sleep is like the sin of the flesh: the more you have the more you want, and yet you feel unhappy, sated, and unsated at the same time." Adso, are you in my head? This is how I feel every time I nap during the day. (And basically every morning when I wake up. #sleepapnea #ibrokeupwithmybipap). The only other person who has effectively captured this feeling is Mike Birbiglia, in describing Sleepy Carl, his early morning alter-ego. ;)

Here are some phrases I came across that I think we should make more of an effort to use in casual conversation:
- "I fear some new calamity!" I'm thinking some good uses would be when someone takes too long to come back from the restroom when you're eating out, or when you can't find your cat in her usual snuggle spots. Not "Where could she be?", but, "I fear some new CalaMity!" Doesn't it have a fantastic ring to it? 

- "Have you already become accustomed to this den of madmen?" The abbot says this to William about the abbey. I think it would be easily applicable to getting comfortable hanging out with a bunch of rowdy dudes, or the like -  Not "Aren't these guys a bunch of weirdos?" or "Can you believe this crowd?" but "Have you already become accustomed to this den of madmen?"

- "We must imagine all possible orders, and all disorders." William says this to Adso with meaningful emphasis. This would be a great one for when you see your neighbors haven't gotten home from vacation yet, or uncharacteristically forgot to mow their lawn. Your friend says, "Maybe there was an incident", or perhaps "Could something be up?" and you look them right in the eye and say, "We must imagine all possible orders, and all disorders."

- "I am losing faith in the human race; I see plots and conspiracies on every side." This is a real gem. You walk in to the break room at work, a coworker you don't particularly like who's a bit of a nervous nelly strolls up and cheerily says, "How was your weekend?" and you counter with, "I am losing faith in the human race; I see plots and conspiracies on every side" and stroll out of the room with your microwaved oatmeal in hand. haghaghaghaghaghag

- "You are the Devil, and like the Devil, you live in darkness." So many possibilities! Why settle for a traditional comeback when you can accuse someone of being the Devil and living in darkness? Also a great option for yelling at nonverbal creatures. We have a beetle infestation in our kitchen cabinets, and this would be a great line to whisper at one before I smash its obnoxious little scuttling body into a paper towel. I think it would hit the point home of who's really boss (even though between you and me it's obviously the beetles since the Raid isn't helping and they keep coming back).

William and his green-colored glazzies
William, being a bit ahead of the times and all, is trendsetting for the other monks by rolling up for his investigation with some sweet lenses. When they get stolen, he has the glazier try to make him some new ones, which leads to this moment: "William was grumbling, irritated because so far the most satisfactory lens was an emerald color, and, as he said, he did not want parchments to seem meadows to him." I thought this was hilarious because it reminded me of when I go strawberry picking with my mom and I have to remind her to take her sunglasses off before she picks, because otherwise all the strawberries she picks will be underripe. She's like, "Oh, all the strawberries in my row are fanTASTic, and I say, "Take off your sunglasses, Mom!" ;)

The intricate interwoven conversations of books
I loved this line of Adso's about realizing that books speak to and about each other: "Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves." One of the most enriching things about this blog experience has been deepening my understanding of that inter-book conversation. I think when I was younger I thought it was exclusive, or snobby, for one book to reference other, (often longer and harder to read) books. But now I realize it's not only an inevitability, but a treasure, that books are not stand alone objects, but intricate references to each other over the deep and diverse history of the written word. Readers have the unique opportunity to steep themselves in this complex and rich conversation by continuing to seek out books and finding the connections between them.

Things are not always what they seem.
"William was deeply humiliated. I tried to comfort him; I told him that for three days he had been looking for a text in Greek and it was natural in the course of his examination for him to discard all books not in Greek. And he answered that it is certainly human to make mistakes, but there are some human beings who make more than others, and they are called fools, and he was one of them, and he wondered whether it was worth the effort to study in Paris and Oxford if one was then incapable of thinking that manuscripts are also bound in groups, a fact even novices know, except stupid ones like me, and a pair of clowns like the two of us would be a great success at fairs, and that was what we should do instead of trying to solve mysteries, especially when we were up against people far more clever than we." I loved this part because (a) it's funny that William is so hard on himself and Adso and (b) it reminded me of a story I heard recently on NPR, on Fresh Air. Terry Gross was interviewing a woman who had traveled to Mali just after the Islamic extremists were expelled by the French. The woman, a reporter, told a story of how she walked into a building that had been an Islamic stronghold, and ignored all the papers in Arabic, because she didn't know the language. She went back to her hotel later and told a fellow reporter, a Lebanese woman, this story, and the woman pointed out that anything in Arabic was in fact priceless, as those writings definitively belonged to the Islamic extremists because the rest of Mali functions in written French. The reporter ended up going back to the headquarters and finding essential pieces of the story (from accounting reports to letters between heads of the Taliban) that helped her to piece together what had previously been considered a black hole in history.

One day, perhaps this is all that will remain.
"At the end of my patient reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library, a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books." Adso's collection of the remaining 'library' at the monastery ruins reminds me that paper is not permanent, and one day only fragments will remain of our beloved written fictions. I wonder what our remaining library will contain, and what treasures will be lost and gained over the course of time?

Words this book taught me:
glabrous - free from hair or down; smooth [As in, my cat Suzy would be glabrous if I shaved off all her beautiful calico fur.]

balneary - a bathing room [As in, must I go to the balneary to take a shower, or is it appropriate to throw water on myself anywhere I please?]

apostasy - the abandonment or renunciation of a religious or political belief [As in, there's nothing like the Tea Party to inspire some apostasy in the conservative ranks.]

ossarium - a place or receptacle for the bones of the dead [As in, the secret entrance to the labyrinth library is just through the ossarium (ha. ha. ha HORRIFYING.)

palimpsest - a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain; fig. something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form [As in, I wish you would stop scribbling recipes for tofu on my palimpsest - you can barely even read the AmAzing poems I wrote when I was seven years old.]

"Snow, dear Adso, is an admirable parchment on which men's bodies leave very legible writing. But this palimpsest is badly scraped, and perhaps we will read nothing interesting on it."

catarrh - excessive discharge or buildup of mucus in the nose or throat, associated with inflammation of the mucous membrane [As in, I wish you would remember to use your NetiPot more often because that catarrh really makes your throat clearing unBEARABLE.]

meed - a deserved share or reward [As in, A super-late Spanish style dinner is a meed that awaits me upon completion of this blog post. Or alternatively, Suzy Chubsters thinks she should get a meed every day just for existing and sleeping like a champion cat.]

scapular - a short monastic cloak covering the shoulders [As in, Adso likes to tuck things under his scapular that he doesn't want the other monks to see, like his Twizzlers and Snickers bars. Just in case you were wondering, like everything else hipster, hilarious, and random, scapulars like this one on the left are available for sale on Etsy. Get your scapular today, folks!]

hebetude - the state of being dull or lethargic [As in, Meredith post-another crazy Breakthrough summer exhibits extreme hebetude and she LIKES IT like that.]

adamantine - unbreakable [As in, my love for vocabulary words and teaching them to you is ADAMANTINE. Aren't you just LOVING THIS SECTION and its seeming neverending quality? ;)]

ecpyrosis - the periodic resolution of all things into fire [As in, I sincerely hope my personal library never experiences an ecpyrosis like the one at the end of this book. Keep those matches away from Suzy!]

Passages I particularly liked:
  • "I grow old as the world does, waiting to be lost in the bottomless pit of silent and deserted divinity." 
  • "It was barely the first faint herald of a winter daybreak, but it was enough, and the dim penumbra now replacing the night's darkness in the nave was enough to relieve my heart."
  • "Everything happened in a few moments, as if for centuries those ancient pages had been yearning for arson and were rejoicing in the sudden satisfaction of an immemorial thirst for ecpyrosis."
  • "For these men devoted to writing, the library was at once the celestial Jerusalem and an unground world on the border between terra incognita and Hades. They were dominated by the library, by its promises and by its prohibitions."
I'll leave you with a few of my favorite exchanges between student and teacher on the merits of learning and knowledge:

Adso: "Why do you want to know?"
William: "Because learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or we can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do."

William: "Very well, it's his house; but by tomorrow morning I must know. I must."
Adso: "You must? Who obliges you now?"
William: "No one ever obliges us to know, Adso. We must, that is all, even if we comprehend imperfectly."

I challenge you all to continue knowing and trying to know more in the constant yearning for understanding and comprehension of this muddled and complex world of ours. Keep your friends close, and your personal library even closer! As T.S. Eliot put it, "The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man."

Happy August breezes to you all, and onwards to While I Lounged Expiring. Join me if you dare!

1 comment:

  1. I loved the photos you attached to the explanations!