Haitam Brekelmans, third place in AskPetersen Scholarship
“A book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements and clumsy hands. If for a hundred and a hundred years everyone had been able freely to handle our codices, the majority of them would no longer exist. So the librarian protects them not only against mankind but also against nature, and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion, the enemy of truth.” – Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
When I first heard the news about Umberto Eco’s death in February this year, the first thing I thought was: “he left without getting that Nobel Prize.” Then I realized that the prize didn’t matter at all. I don’t think he cared about the money, glory, or controversy linked to this award. There was something else that kept him going through life: real, unadulterated love for literature. He was not writing to make his readers or critics happy and to serve what they sought. He wrote what naturally came out of his mind and soul. That’s why each one of his books is so different than the others, but I still recognize his vibe through the sentences. He was a writer who could annoy me, get me angry, surprise me, make me fall in love with him and hate him at the same time because he didn’t bring the story where I expected… he did all this with a single book. I know that Umberto Eco left deep traces in the world of literature, so he will never be forgotten. He didn’t get the controversial, but still respectable Nobel Prize, so I award him a posthumous prize for being my favorite writer.
Eco’s books are definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, but that uniqueness was part of his charm for me. The man refused to craft a bestseller that would contain all ingredients for popularity. Despite his rebellion against the trends of modern literature, all his books somehow managed to become bestsellers. I loved his active attempts to dissuade readers of bestsellers from reading The Name of the Rose with those famous opening 100 pages, which restrained many readers from discovering the real treasure of this novel. Despite his unorthodox methods of opening the story, there were still many people who read and loved his books. He was an incredibly talented writer who brought great value to the world of literature, but he was also a really great man. Those two characteristics rarely meet in a single human being.
As a novelist and semiotician, to me Eco was the greatest scholar among writers, and the greatest writer among scholars. The readers can approach his books without understanding his passion for semiotics, but they would get little sense of the goal he wanted to achieve: the reader is the one who gives meaning to the text. When I was reading his books, I felt like I was learning history through fiction. The greatest librarian of modern times, Jorge Luis Borges, was immortalized in the pages of The Name of the Rose through the character of the blind librarian Jorge de Burgos. When I read this book, I got hints of the greatness of Borges, so I discovered another writer who quickly became one of my favorites. Umberto Eco’s books are not simple stories; they encourage me to dig deeper and deeper to find out about his inspiration, as well as the meaning he was trying to convey. He taught me how to read not only with my heart, but also with my intellect, which is necessary for recognizing the magical signs of time in his books.
In an interview Umberto Eco gave in 2015, he explained what he would do if he ruled the world. “People like me, we are intellectuals – we do our job, we write articles, we have ways of protesting, but we can’t change the world. All we can do is support the politics of empathy.” I believe that at this point, he underestimated the influence he had over the minds of millions of people who read his work. He did change the way they thought and understood the history of the world. He did bring changes in their personal worlds. Sense was abundant in Eco’s work, and I can only say that the world was quite damaged on that February 19, when “the most natural thing in the world,” as he personally referred to death, happened to him. Eco, I thank you for teaching me how to read mysteries and bringing back my faith in literature. You proved to me that modern writers can still write great books.