Umberto Eco
Criticism: Books

The following list of Eco criticism is arranged by publishing date, and as a casual browsing will reveal, some of the earlier books lack commentary. Porta Ludovica welcomes any informed reviews or commentary, so please feel free to send email!

Writer and Society in Contemporary Italy: A Collection of Essays

Michael Caesar and Peter Hammondsworth, editors.

1984, Out of Print.

A general introduction of Eco and his work; long out of print.

The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction

Stefano Tani

Southern Illinois University Press, 1984, ISBN 0809311488; Hardcover, Out of Print. [Search for a copy]

This work, which is now out of print, has been called “important and highly readable.”

The Key to The Name of the Rose

Adele Haft, Jane White, and Robert White (1987)

University of Michigan Press, 1999, ISBN 0472086219; Paperback $15.95. [Browse/Purchase]

The University of Michigan re-release of the 1987 Cahill guide, this book is a welcome reprinting of a very useful work. The Key is, simply put, a marvelous book, a wonderful resource for both the beginner and the Eco scholar alike. The writing style is fresh and very readable, striking the perfect balance between academic rigor and simplicity of use – it tells you exactly what you need to know, often pointing out small jokes, interesting asides, and occasional inconsistencies.
The Key is divided clearly into four main chapters with a few helpful extras at the beginning and end. After a warm preface and introduction, Chapter One sets up the book with an essay on “Umberto Eco, Semiotics, and Medieval Thought.” Umberto Eco’s career is briefly outlined, which leads into a short but lucid discussion of semiotics, focusing on its relation to both the Middle Ages and the novel itself. Aspects of the Middle Ages which are relevant to Rose are highlighted, including the influence of Aristotle, the concept of Universals, and the conflicts between logical reasoning and infallible ediction. Modern literary influences on the novel are brought into play as well, with emphasis on both Sherlock Holmes and Jorge Luis Borges. The essay concludes with some thoughts on the oft-pondered title of the novel.
Chapter Two is titled “A Brief Chronology of the Middle Ages,” and lists events from 480 AD to 1367 AD that have relevance to the plot. This is followed by Chapter Three, “An Annotated Guide to the Historical and Literary References.” Structured like an encyclopedia, these 58 pages comprise nearly a third of The Key, and provide notes on everything from Peter Abelard to the Williamites. Countless scholars, popes, saints and heretics are referenced, long with various sects, books, mythical places and fantastical beasts. The glosses and biographical sketches are concise, appropriate, and often touched with a dry humor; they have also been cross-linked to the rest of the book through boldface typing.
Chapter Four, “Notes on the Text of The Name of the Rose,” is the second most useful section of the book, and was in fact the reason the authors began this project – to provide a translation the Latin passages. This chapter contains a complete annotation of all the non-English phrases in the novel, whether Latin, medieval German, Arabic, or even the Babel-esque mutterings of the wretched Salvatore. The annotations are easy to follow, with pagination for all three existing versions of Rose, and thoughtfully provide a recap of the original as well as the translation. What’s more, some of the annotations come with highly illuminating notes, the best being an illustrated commentary on possible sources for Eco’s central labyrinth.
The main text ends with a “Postscript,” an essay intended for readers who have completed the novel. Here the authors set aside their glosses and engage in some speculation, discussing the Apocalyptic themes inherent in Rose as well as its enigmatic conclusion. The Key closes with three handy sections: a complete bibliography of Eco’s work up to 1998, a bibliography of sources consulted in the writing of the guide, and some notes on the authors themselves.
I highly recommend The Key to “The Name of the Rose” to both new readers and those who are already familiar with Eco’s great novel. It really is a small treasure, and the illuminations it provides for Eco’s labyrinthine text are as engaging and clever as those drawn by poor Adelmo himself.
Readers wishing a full review may reference the November 7, 1999 Porta Ludovica Review of The Key to “The Name of the Rose.” The above text is mostly excerpted from this longer review.

Naming of the Rose: Eco, Medieval Signs, and Modern Theory

Theresa Coletti

1. Cornell University Press, 1988, ISBN 0801421144; Hardcover, Out of Print. [Browse/Search for a copy]

2. Cornell University Press, 1989, ISBN 0801496233; Paperback, Out of Print. [Browse/Search for a copy]

An analysis of Eco as a semiotician and a novelist. If you would like to submit a review or synopsis of this work, please contact Porta Ludovica.

Naming the Rose: Essays on Eco and The Name of the Rose

M. Thomas Inge, editor

University Press of Mississippi, 1988, ISBN 087805345X; Hardcover, Out of Print. [Search for a copy]

A collection of academic essays. If you would like to submit a review or synopsis of this work, please contact Porta Ludovica.

The Labyrinth: Symbol of Fear, Rebirth, and Liberation

Helmut Jaskolski. Translated by Michael H. Kohn.

Shambhala Publications, 1997, ISBN 1570621950; Paperback, $19.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Julia E. Linthicum writes: “The book is primarily about labyrinths and their history. There’s one long chapter devoted to Eco.” From

A labyrinth is an ancient circular diagram found in cultures around the world. Taking an approach both reflective and playful, Helmut Jaskolski traces our fascination with this ambiguous ancient motif and shows, through stories ranging from myths and medieval tales to the labyrinthine fiction of Umberto Eco, that the labyrinth is a living symbol for our time.

Umberto Eco and the Open Text: Semiotics, Fiction, Popular Culture

Peter E. Bondanella

Cambridge University Press, 1997, ISBN 0-521-44200-1; Hardcover, Out of Print. [Browse/Purchase]

The author calls this “the first general book on Eco’s intellectual development to treat his entire career.” From the Cambridge Press Web site:

Umberto Eco is known among academics for his literary and cultural theories, and to an enormous international audience through his novels The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. Peter Bondanella offers the first comprehensive study in English of Eco’s works. In clear and accessible language, he traces the development of Eco’s interests, from medieval aesthetics to semiotics to popular culture, and shows how Eco’s own fiction grows out of his literary and cultural theories. Bondanella also provides a full bibliography of works by and about Eco, arguably the most famous Italian writer since Dante.

Reading Eco: An Anthology

Rocco Capozzi. editor.

1. Indiana Press, 1997, ISBN 0253332753; Hardcover; $44.95. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Indiana Press, 1997, ISBN 0253211166; Paperback; $19.95

According to Indiana Press: “In this anthology, Eco’s ideas of literary semiotics and interpretation are examined by a number of distinguished contributors, including Thomas A. Sebeok, Rocco Capozzi, Davis Seed, John Deely, Lubomir Dolezel, Susan Petrilli, Irmengard Rauch, Victorino Tejera, Hanna Buczynska-Garewicz, Michael Riffaterre, Paul Perron, Roberta Kevelson, Anna Longoni, Teresa de Lauretis, David H. Richter, Peter Bondanella, Thomas Coletti, Linda Hutcheon, Lois Parkinson Zamora, Noram Bouchard, and Claudia Miranda.” From the Preface by the author:

Whenever students ask me to give them an idea of what Umberto Eco is ‘really’ like, in person, I often follow their inquiry with my own question: What do Augustine, R. Bacon, T. Aquinas, Templars, Baroque, TV serials like ‘Colombo,’ movies like ‘Casablanca’ and the trilogy of ‘Indiana Jones’; thinkers like Peirce, Bakhtin, Derrida, Foucault, Popper, and Wittengstein; writers like Dante, Poe, Joyce, Borges, Barthes, Lotman; as well as aesthetics, philosophy, structuralism, semiotics, deconstruction, mass media, Superman, Conan Doyle, esoteric texts, kabbalah, irony, humor, intertextuality, reading the classics, philosophy, comic strips, computers, techniques of writing, and interpreting signs/texts, architecture, libraries, labyrinths, palimpsests, the art of writing bestsellers, ‘global encyclopedia,’ ‘inferential walks,’ ‘open works,’ and ‘model readers,’ have in common? After a few seconds of silence I end up explaining that this is a partial list of authors, topics, theories, and issues that Eco can examine, discuss and joke about, with various degrees of authority.

Umberto Eco’s Alternative: The Politics of Culture and the Ambiguities of Interpretation

Norma Bouchard & Veronica Pravadelli, editors.
With an essay by Eco.

Peter Lang Publishing, 1998, ISBN 0820437891; Paperback, $32.95. [Browse/Purchase]

From the Publisher:

This anthology examines Eco’s work within the context of the current debate surrounding the interpretation and production of cultural messages. The contributors include Peter Carravetta, Patrizia Violi, Davide Del Bello, Remo Ceserani, Walter Stephens, Rocco Capozzi, Linda Hutcheon, Peter Bondanella, Christine Evans, Maurizio Rebaudengo, Diane Elam, Francesco Casetti, and Barbara Grespi. The richness of these writers’ approaches mirrors the subject and provides new and fresher ways to think about Eco.

On Eco

Gary P. Radford

Wadsworth Publication Company, 2002, ISBN 053458392X; Paperback, $15.95. [Browse/Purchase]

A slim but informative introduction to Umberto Eco’s work in philology and semiotics, Gary Radford’s On Eco belongs to the Wadsworth Philosopher Series, books “dedicated to providing both philosophy students and general readers with insight into the background, development, and thinking of great intellects throughout the history of civilization.
Prefaced by Eco’s somewhat ironic quote “I myself like easy books that put me to sleep immediately,” the work gets underway with a cheerful introduction of itself as a self-aware text, suggesting to its reader that any notions of authorship or Gary Radford be tossed out the window. All you have in front of you is, well, a text; and one that will hopefully assist in the creation of its own Model Reader.
On Eco proceeds in this playful spirit, introducing Eco’s work in semiotics, outlining his theories of interpretation, and finally relating these ideas to his first two novels, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. Intended for the general reader, the book is written in a refreshingly immediate style, virtually twinkling with wry humor and peppered with charmingly eclectic examples. Radford takes an obvious delight in selecting offbeat illustrations for Eco’s theories, and his erudition ranges from Monty Python and Elvis Costello to Borges and Schopenhauer. Not above tweaking the nose of his subject, Umberto Eco quickly becomes the primary target of his own theories and obsessions – after finding his name emptied of content and cast as an “expression unit,” the Professor is, among other things, deconstructed out of existence, semiotically “blown up,” and placed in a hypothetical mystery novel as the killer’s next victim.
Happily, amidst the humor and playfulness, Radford stays focused on his topic with admirable dexterity, covering the major elements of Eco’s semiotics: expression units and content units, Model Authors and Model Readers, textual topics and inferential walks, closed and open texts, and theories of sign production. Radford is very careful to keep pace with his Model Reader, developing each topic from the previous one, backing theory with concrete examples, and patiently cross-connecting his points from chapter to chapter. While at times one desires more depth, the text provides many original quotes from Eco’s works, an implicit invitation to further study the topic at its source.
The penultimate chapter, “Watching the Detectives,” touches upon the semiotic nature of detective stories. Focusing on The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, Radford discusses the way each novel examines the quest for meaning, the former using semiotics to posit a potentially useful truth, the latter revealing what happens when meaning is consistently deferred and all truths are held equal.
On Eco ends as it began, with a brief discussion of itself as a text, one that will inevitably change the very nature of the subject it purports to study, and one that requires a reader to complete its meaning. With this in mind, On Eco admits that, like all books, it must be “incomplete and potentially endless.”
If On Eco has a drawback, again, it’s with this very sense of incompletion – a few pages on The Island of the Day Before would have been nice, as would have been a discussion of Eco’s “open texts” as applied to his own novels, or annotations for the bibliography. Still, the Wadsworth books are intended as introductions, and given 81 pages, Radford does a very credible job of illuminating Eco’s main ideas. A concise and often charming book, I recommend On Eco to any fan of Umberto Eco the novelist who wants to know more about Umberto Eco the professor.

Eco’s Chaosmos: From the Middle Ages to Postmodernity

Cristina Farronato

University of Toronto Press, 2003, ISBN 0802085865; Paperback, $30.95. [Browse/Purchase]

From the publisher:

While Umberto Eco’s intellectual itinerary was marked by his early studies of post-Crocean aesthetics and his spectacular concentration on linguistics, information theory, structuralism, semiotics, cognitive science, and media studies, what constitutes the peculiarity of his critical and fiction writing is the tension between a typically medieval search for a code and the hermeneutic representative of deconstructive tendencies. This tension between cosmos and chaos, order and disorder, is reflected in the word chaosmos.

In this brilliant assessment of the philosophical basis of Eco’s critical and fictional writing, Cristina Farronato explores the other distinctive aspect of Eco’s thought – the struggle for a composition of opposites, the outcome deriving from his ability to elicit similar contrasts from the past and re-play them in modern terms. Focusing principally on how Eco’s scholarly background influenced his study of semiotics, Farronato analyzes The Name of the Rose in relation to William of Ockham’s epistemology, C.S. Peirce’s work on abduction, and Wittgenstein’s theory of language. She discusses Foucault’s Pendulum as an explicit comment on the modern debate on interpretation through a direct reference to Early Modern hermetic thought, correlates The Island of the Day Before as a postmodern mixture of science and superstition, and reviews Baudolino as an historical/fantastic novel that once again situates the Middle Ages in a postmodern context. Eco’s Chaosmos demonstrates how Eco’s use of semiotic theory is important for an understanding of the postmodern aspects of today’s literature and culture.

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Criticism Main Page – Back to the Criticism main page, where you can find the Porta Ludovica standard menu.

Academic Bibliography – A bibliographical listing of articles, dissertations, book chapters and essays about Eco and his work.

Non-English Criticism – A few works of criticism that are currently available only in Italian or other languages.


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–Allen B. Ruch
7 November 2004