Yesterday I started reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Apparently, I’m not the only one who was recently inspired to delve into this 1980s bestseller; when I went online last weekend to order a copy from amazon, they were out of stock, and the estimated delivery time was 2-3 weeks. Then I went by my local-ish Barnes & Noble last Monday, and they were sold out. So I went home and rooted around online and found a used hardback copy that sounded all right – it’s in pretty decent shape, and it didn’t cost me any more than a new paperback would have, even with express shipping. (Apparently, someone has finally cranked up the printing presses; if you order a copy of Eco’s novel on Amazon today, you can get it by Tuesday.)
Surely, Eco’s novel is selling especially briskly these days because of the sad news of his recent passing. Many people who had long said to themselves, “I really ought to read The Name of the Rose some day,” were simultaneously moved to pick up a copy of the novel at last. And I am indeed one among that multitude.
Eco’s novel has been on my “to read” list for a while, partly because I thought I would enjoy it (and I certainly do), and partly because it is pertinent to my research interests. Eco’s novel hit the bestseller list just a couple of years before “the canon wars” broke out at Stanford and then went national. So, I wonder, how did Eco’s narrative shape readers’ ideas about texts and meaning, about the limits and the liquidity of language, about the value of books? How might Eco have prepared the way for Allan Bloom’s jeremiad, or how might he have subtly cushioned Bloom’s subsequent polemical blow?
It seems to me that The Name of the Rose – and, for that matter, the rollicking filmic romp of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, though I’m sure someone will be appalled that I would lay those two texts side by side – can serve as a useful source to reveal popular (indeed, best-selling and top-grossing) notions about meaning, tradition, truth, the power (and limits) of books, the relationship of the past to the present. That’s what I’m looking at, anyhow – that, and Harrison Ford in all his blond, bronzed, brusque and brawny glory.
Which brings me to the problem of selection…
Right now, for reasons that have as much to do with my own psychic needs as a writer as they have to do with my own research needs as a scholar, I’m sticking with texts that I would simply enjoy, even if they had nothing to add to the evidentiary stores from which I am fashioning my argument. But soon enough I will need to visit – or re-visit – some texts that I ought to look at, that I must look at, if I’m going to really take the pulse of the cultural moment(s) I seek to diagnose. But what texts are those? What – or whom — must I read, and what/whom can I get away with simply reading about?
Of course that’s an impossible question to answer. It is for me, anyhow – at least at the moment. To make a list of novels that one has to read – or movies or music videos that one has to see – in order to understand, say, the 1980s, is to create a canon for the 1980s. “Here is a decade distilled into the top five, or top ten, or top fifty significant novels/films/events. Master this list, and you’ve mastered the moment.” I can’t do that – at least, I can’t set out to do that.
But whatever I select, whatever I eventually look at, whatever I draw from to recreate (or create anew) that time and temper for my readers – whatever my bibliography of primary sources eventually includes – will be a sort of ad hoc canon, a set of sources that, while not exhaustive, includes something of everything that was (in this author’s judgment) crucial for the work of bringing that past — as this author understands it — to life for present readers.
I don’t know yet what my 1980s canon will include. Do I need to say something about Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero? I don’t know; I’ve never read it. Maybe that one goes on my “just read about it” list. There’s only one way to find out: add it to my “to read” list and then re-evaluate when I’m a chapter or two into the text.
Well, that’s not entirely true – there are some other sorting mechanisms available to me, including but not limited to the collective wisdom of our readers. I’ve asked folks at this blog before to help me compile a bibliography of secondary sources for the 1980s, and the results were really fantastic.
So let me go to the well again. But this time, I’m going to drop the bucket down into memory, and sensation, and desire, and delight, and even despair – down, down, down, into the deep well of primary sources, primal experiences, privileged perspectives. I have my own perspective, my own experience of the 1980s. But for the rest of you, I ask you: what music, what movie, what novel, what conflict, what critical intervention, what crisis, sums up what the 1980s felt like for you?
If you wish, if you can, add your version or your vision of the 1980s to my little, limited, ad hoc canon. I may not read — or watch — it all, but at least I (and others) can here read all about it.