My review of The Name of the Rose

The Name of the RoseThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Name of the Rose is not an easy book to read, but read it, one must. I finally finished this book yesterday, on my third attempt. The first time I gave up within the first 50 pages. The second time, I half-heartedly reached the 300th page and realized that I was not doing justice to the book, so gave up.

And I am really glad I did not try to finish this book on my second attempt. I am sharing some thoughts on how I finally managed to read this book -

The first 100 pages make for torturous reading. I read somewhere that Eco made it such that uninterested readers will stay away! Nevertheless, I urge you to make some notes while you are reading the first 100 pages. A list of characters will be very useful till one gets used to the medieval names. It was also useful to jot down the major power factions and who is for/against whom. The plot of the book unfolds in a politically charged environment and a lot of dialogue references the political changes afoot. It will help one to have a chart depicting the various power plays.

The book revolves around two Orders of medieval Europe - the Benedictine Order and the Franciscan Order. A number of 'fringe' elements of the Franciscan Order are also often referenced. Read up and make some notes on these entities before crossing the first 100 pages. This will be very useful to understand some nuanced dialogues between major characters.

There are two major plots in this book - the first deals with the mysterious murders in the abbey and how William tries to solve them ; the second deals with more profound questions such as inductive vs deductive reasoning, whether universality is feasible in a random world etc.
The first plot is obviously the more enjoyable one and by itself, it makes this a great book. The second plot is harder to appreciate in just a single reading. I had to read some passages several times just to get a high-level picture. The book deserves to be read multiple times solely to meditate on the profound questions raised in the second plot.

This book deals a lot with Christianity and several ecclesiastical questions such as the importance of poverty, relevance of humor in faith etc. At first glance, these may appear to be irrelevant to a reader like me (a Hindu living in India). However, I feel that, at a philosophical level, the questions raised by this book are valid to everyone. For example, the passages on the poverty of Christ and His Apostles throw up several ideas on the relevance of money on a spiritual quest, the idea of possession in a physical and spiritual sense etc. Similarly, the abbatial library, so central to the plot, raises several implicit questions on judging and preserving Knowledge and even on the purpose of any Knowledge.

A significant chunk of the dialogues is in Latin. Initially I spent a lot of time trying to find their English translations. I will urge you to avoid wasting time on that, at least in the first reading. The preceding or following lines usually give you a good-enough idea on what the Latin dialogue meant.

To summarize, this is a once-in-a-blue-moon book. Don't let the vocabulary, the Latin and the convoluted writing style dissuade you from a superb book. I plan to revisit this book once every few years.

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