On the fifth floor of the Chicago Tribune Tower is a square windowless room accessed by a single door.
This room is called, with a regrettable lack of imagination, the Book Room.
It will not surprise you to learn that it is filled with books. Day after day they arrive in a sharp-cornered cavalcade, books of every shape and size and color, books covering subjects both obvious and startling, both trivial and profound.
Fiction and nonfiction. Paperbacks and hardbacks. Good books and so-so books.
Publishers send us these books by the burgeoning boxful, hoping that we will decide to review them or interview the authors or otherwise notify the world of their existence.
Upon receiving the happy news earlier this fall that I would be engaging in a conversation with Umberto Eco, that scintillatingly brilliant and verbally playful polymath, at the Chicago Humanities Festival, my first stop was the Book Room.
I snatched up an advance copy of "The Prague Cemetery," Eco's new novel, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It's a beautiful volume, handsomely illustrated with period-specific engravings, and its diabolical story — a nasty, repulsive character responsible for many of the world's toxic prejudices and vile conspiracies spreads his poison with voluptuous abandon throughout late 19th century Europe — uncoils like a long, shimmering snake.
"Who am I?" asks this character, the odious and garrulous Simonini. "Perhaps it is better to ask me about my passions, rather than what I've done in my life. Whom do I love? No one comes to mind."
Before finishing "The Prague Cemetery," however, I was aware of a powerful urge to re-read two of Eco's previous works: "The Name of the Rose" (1980), a love letter to a library cleverly disguised as a murder mystery, and "Foucault's Pendulum" (1988), which, with its labyrinthine plot and its echo chamber of conspiratorial whisperings, serves as a sort of dry run for some of the ideas in "The Prague Cemetery."
Chief among these ideas is the notion that secrets and betrayals and obsessive plot-hatchings are as necessary to the human species as food, water and air. We can't seem to live without our puzzles, without the fiendish little plans and canny strategies over which we cackle with self-congratulatory glee.
It's no wonder that Sudoku is so popular: As Eco's works suggest, the individual is really just a human Sudoku, a shifting combination of symbols that others are always trying to arrange in a satisfying and comprehensible pattern.
But as I contemplated immersing myself once again in those sublimely magical stories with their fantastically elongated lists, I felt guilty — because so many new books beckon, books I've yet to read. Ten minutes in the Book Room will leave you dizzy with the sheer volume and variety.
By what right do I ignore a new author's hot-off-the-proverbial-press book and go back to one I've already read?
Years ago, a friend introduced me to concept of opportunity cost — the reality that when you choose to spend your time on one thing, you must also calculate the cost of losing the potential benefits of the many things you're choosing not to do — and I've never forgiven her.
Because now I am excruciatingly aware, each time I pick up a book, of all the books I am shunning in order to focus on the one in my hand.
When Oprah Winfrey changed the rules of her book club, deciding to select only acknowledged classics, I was disappointed; as I argued at the time, the classics can take care of themselves. They're already comfortably ensconced in warm, well-lighted libraries on long cushy shelves. They can spread out and relax. They don't need a boost from Winfrey or anybody else.
To a scrappy new work, though, the world is still generally cold and indifferent. That work must fight its way through storm and strife and peril, competing with TV shows and supermarket tabloids, struggling to be heard above the din of daily life. A new novel by an unknown author is as sad-eyed and needy-looking as a lost puppy in the rain.
Eco understands my dilemma — or at least I think he does. I'll double-check with him Sunday. But it seems to me, after reading some of his novels and essays, that if there is an overarching theme that spreads across his oeuvre, it is this: The very anxiety engendered by all that we don't know — from secret societies and vast conspiracies to the stuff in all the books we're not reading — whips up its own kind of quasi-sacred energy. It's the ultimate green fuel. It keeps pushing us forward. And it's infinitely renewable.
A novel, Eco writes in "Confessions of a Young Novelist," published earlier this year by Harvard University Press, "wants to represent life with all its inconsistency." A novelist "wants to stage a series of contradictions." What's more of a contradiction than re-reading — than the fact that, if you're reading what you've already read, you're really just repeating yourself?
Yet we also know that re-reading is the only way to appreciate the work of an author such as Eco, who "loads every rift with ore," as John Keats described literature that is dense with nuance and meaning.
The more forcefully we are haunted by the opportunity cost of all that we're not reading right now, the more persistently we will be lured back to the Book Room — any book room, anywhere. Back to "nourishing the mind on the marvels hidden in the vast womb of the library," in the words of the narrator in "The Name of the Rose."
As Brother William of Baskerville, the great detective-monk in that novel, explains to his apprentice: "My good Adso … the world speaks to us like a great book." It's a book we re-read every day of our lives — but it's always a different story.
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