“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…”
The Name of the Rose is Umberto Eco’s bestselling 1980 debut novel set in a 14th century Italian monastery. At its surface, the story is a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle-style murder mystery in which the English Franciscan friar, William of Baskerville (an obvious nod to Sherlock Holmes), and the novice Adso (in the Dr. Watson role as narrator/sidekick) investigate the suspicious death of a Benedictine monk. But there are many layers to Eco’s masterpiece, including in-depth discussions of theology, semiotics, and the conflicting philosophies of rationalism versus dogmatism. Umberto Eco’s prose is elegant, erudite, and remarkably accessible given its high information density.
For me personally, reading The Name of the Rose was a transformational experience, reigniting my love of reading and opening new doors of literary discovery. As part of “The Books That Made Me” series, this post is not meant to be a review of The Name of the Rose, but rather my own personal journey that led me to this book as an undergraduate student, and the profound impact it has had on me since.
My love of reading began at a young age, encouraged by my parents, and especially by my mother, who worked as a kindergarten teacher for over 30 years and always knew the best children’s books. I have such fond memories of reading as a young child, especially Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and P.D. Eastman’s Go Dog Go. As I grew older, I graduated to the Old Mother West Wind tales by Thornton W. Burgess, checking out well-worn copies from my local public library.
My first exposure to fantasy came with The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien during my sixth grade English class taught by my mother’s cousin-in-law, who was also an outstanding teacher. I immediately fell in love with Middle-earth and subsequently devoured The Lord of the Rings multiple times. Although I also enjoyed C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander, nothing could compare to The Lord of the Rings.
Unfortunately, as is the case for many teenagers, my love of reading gradually faded away during a series of uninspired high school English classes, which focused on the usual set of tired American classics, ignoring world literature and anything related to fantasy or science fiction. One can only take so much Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville before reading itself becomes a chore.
Salvation came during my undergraduate studies at Alfred University in upstate New York, where I experienced the joy of taking two classes from Dr. Fiona Tolhurst, a young assistant professor of English. Fiona was a passionate medievalist whose research focused on feminist interpretations of Arthurian literature. She single-handedly restored my love of reading in classes where we covered both medieval literature such as The Mabinogion and medieval-inspired fantasy including T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.
But the most impactful book for me was The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I fell in love with Eco’s beautiful prose, thematic depth, and engaging plot that kept me glued to the pages. I loved it, and I wanted more.
The Name of the Rose led me to discover other authors who would rank among my favorites. Umberto Eco naturally led to fellow Italian author Italo Calvino and his heartfelt, magic-tinged stories of love and loss. From Calvino, I discovered the world of magical realism, first with Latin American authors and then within Japanese literature, leading to one of my favorite authors in Haruki Murakami. Over the following years, my literary world expanded exponentially, ultimately bringing me back to my love of fantasy and to another favorite author, Mark Lawrence, noted for his ingenious infusion of dark fantasy with sci-fi elements, all told in a subtly interconnected universe. But The Name of the Rose was the initial catalyst that triggered all these subsequent discoveries.
Of course, I owe all of this to my favorite English professor from Alfred University, Dr. Fiona Tolhurst. After I graduated from Alfred, Fiona’s academic career brought her to Switzerland for several years and then back to the United States, where she became department chair at Florida Gulf Coast University. We stayed in touch over the years, and I always tried to express my gratitude for what she taught me.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck just before Christmas in 2021, when Fiona unexpectedly passed away at the age of 53. It’s still beyond my comprehension how someone so full of life could be taken from this world so suddenly. In the weeks following her tragic death, I felt that the best way to honor her legacy would be to take it as my personal mission to share my love of reading with the world, just as Fiona shared hers with me. Every time I write a review or recommend a book, I am doing this in memory of Fiona, hoping that her impact can live on and amplify even after her untimely death. This brought me, ultimately, to join the staff at Grimdark Magazine, where I’ve met so many friends who share that same passion.
To me, The Name of the Rose is more than just a book, as it became my gateway to a lifelong love of literature. It is also my constant reminder of the indelible impact one teacher can have on a student’s life.