Umberto Eco, the Italian author, philosopher, and professor of literature has been one of the towering figures of my intellectual coming-of-age. His scholarly books on semiotics and on the role of the reader as producer of meaning in literary texts (Lector in Fabula) opened up a world of new and sometimes radical connections.
But Eco also embodied a certain coolness factor. After all, here was an academic who compared the protagonists of the classical Western literary canon with comic-book superheroes. And an academic who wrote novels, which I devoured: Starting with Eco’s bestselling debut novel, Der Name der Rose (The Name of the Rose), I worked my way through Das Foucaultsche Pendel (Foucault’s Pendulum), Baudolino, Die Insel des vorigen Tages (The Island of the Prior Day), Ein Friedhof in Prag (Prague Cemetery), and Nullnummer (Number Zero), his last one.
But the one book of his I probably returned to most often, and the one I actually pulled from the shelves when I read about Eco’s death on February 19, 2016, was a not very exciting looking red-bound paperback, titled Wie man eine wissenschaftliche Abschlussarbeit schreibt (How to Write an Academic Thesis). This book was one of seval required textbooks for the methodological intro courses in History and German Literature at Salzburg University. But while the other books were cut-and-dry manuals that put you to sleep and required considerable mental energy to even open, Eco’s handbook was written in a lively and engaging style that pulled me in. Based on a hypothetical scenario–an adult student with family obligations needs to write a master’s thesis while also holding down a day job–Eco provided a step-by-step guide for scholarly research that acknowledged the pressures of everyday life on students but did not give an inch when it came to his rigorous scholarly standards.
To give you a taste: While Eco admitted that nobody could be expected to read every piece of secondary literature in every major language on a given topic, he considered reading knowledge of the five major Western languages as non-negotiable bottom-line for humanistic scholarship. And he expressed his view in a non-pontificating, convincing style. From the student working on a Russian author, for instance, he expected the requisite dedication to at least spend a few hours learning the Cyrillic alphabet.
Eco’s scholarly and literary productivity as well as his public interventions need to be evaluated in their own context. The changes in inter-disciplinary approaches, the digital disruption, as well as the shifting cultural and political landscapes make direct comparisons difficult. But the ever-growing list of anachronisms in his little red book do not matter much. What matters is that the book still manages to communicate its author’s passion for scholarly inquiry. The little red book is evidence that Eco conducted his research with that rare kind of deep and serious engagement which translates into palpable pleasure. I will forever be grateful to him for modeling this kind of scholarship.