Donovan Roberts Witmer '97
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The truth about unicorns and the desire for a good story
The final week of June 1983 surprised many readers when an arcane and ponderous first novel, set in a medieval monastery, showed up on The New York Times best-seller list at No. 10. By August, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose had reached No. 1. Eco, an erudite university professor, had demolished the conventional wisdom that scholars of fiction can’t write what they so skillfully analyze.
I read Eco’s novel two summers later, obtaining a cheap copy at a library sale. I was hooked, stopping only for meals and one night of sleep. Why did a novel littered with Latin and esoteric medieval theology so captivate my imagination?
Eco seduced me. He offered his intellectual fiction as a murder mystery —monks dying in postures that appeared to match apocalyptic prophecy. I felt the characters’ anxiety and shared their intense desire to know the truth. While I had good reason to distrust the account delivered by the young novice, Adso, I put myself in his robe and attended to his mentor, Brother William of Baskerville.
I admired Brother William for his patient wisdom, relentless pursuit of truth, and self-questioning humility. At one moment, after William and Adso enter the forbidden labyrinth of the monastery’s library, Adso queries William about the unicorns that appear in many of the books they page through. Before William disappoints the young Adso with the truth about unicorns, he says, “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means.”
As a young man about to begin a doctoral program in English, I found Brother William’s approach to books instructive. Indeed, Eco’s novel queries the nature and purpose of reading— whether our texts are books, human behavior, or the created world around us. While satisfying our basic desire for a good story, The Name of the Rose also provides us with a look at our own selves as readers—why and how we read and the difference it makes.
—Samuel Smith, a professor of English, has just completed 20 years of teaching Shakespeare and early British literature.