What's really on my mind is the book I finished last night, The Name of the Rose. This is the second time I've read it, but the first time was years ago -- it must have been '83 or '84, since I had already read the book when the film came out in 1986.
The introduction says that many people initially advised author Umberto Eco to drastically reduce the first 100 pages, which contain an elaborate back story purporting to explain the "discovery" of the manuscript of Adso of Melk. Adso is the story's narrator; a novice when the main action occurs, he is the assistant to William of Baskerville, a monk who has been sent to an Italian abbey on a diplomatic mission. Eco kept these pages in, saying that navigating them is an initiation that lets the reader understand the rest of the book.
The story takes place in the 14th century amid the swirl of intrigue surrounding the Catholic Church, the Pope, and the Holy Roman Emperor and features long theological debates, descriptions of monastic life, passages in Latin and, in short, all varieties of the erudite minutiae Eco is famous for. It's also a compelling murder mystery and a very human drama. And there's a labyrinth! At the heart of the story is the abbey's library, which has been cunningly designed to conceal a great mystery.
I was not a librarian the first time I read this book, but I am now, so I'm coming at the library angle with personal experience. We haven't found many bodies in the library I work in (maybe we're not looking hard enough), but the abbey library generates corpses on a regular basis. It all centers on a missing book. In my library, we frequently have missing books, and desperate people, but the books are usually in someone's office underneath a pile of papers, and that's the end of the story.
The abbey presents an interesting model of knowledge management in that the whole idea is to keep the library's contents safe from potential users. The librarian decides when and if a requested book will be retrieved, based on his evaluation of its contents. This library gives closed stacks a whole new meaning, since the catalog is a riddle, the layout is a labyrinth, and the rooms contain many surprises (not all of them pleasant) in addition to an "amazing" collection of books.
William of Baskerville has a different idea of what a library should be. He wants books to be read and discussed and does not think anyone -- librarian, abbot, or pope -- should hamper the pursuit of knowledge. He has a humanistic faith in learning and philosophy, but his faith is crushed by the events of the novel. Young Adso, who is very traditional in his thinking and sometimes scandalized by William's irreverence, is the one who really learns something worth knowing. To me, he -- and not the learned theologians -- actually has the last word.
I remembered from my first reading the incident that causes Adso so much agitation, but I didn't remember how beautifully it's described. Adso's encounter with the peasant girl in the kitchen only lasts a few pages, but in a way it's the high point of the novel. Adso is immediately sorry about breaking his monastic vow and confesses at the first opportunity. William advises him to avoid feeling too bad about it.
Even more significant than the event itself is the lasting impact it has on Adso. He speaks the next day of looking at the world with different, more knowing eyes. "The truth is that I 'saw' the girl, I saw her in the branches of the bare tree that stirred lightly . . . I saw her in the eyes of the heifers that came out of the barn, and I heard her in the bleating of the sheep that crossed my erratic path. It was as if all creation spoke to me of her . . ."
Adso's awareness of the beauty of life has come to him through the auspices of a young girl in a union totally unsanctioned by the laws of the Church. It's an unexpected act of grace that makes all the difference for Adso. In spite of the ugliness of later events and the ruin that even William's philosophy can do nothing to prevent, this experience gives Adso a different kind of wisdom. His openness to this gift seems to me to be the real answer to the brutality and insanity of the times.
I know that the meaning of the book's title is an open question and that the author meant it to be that way. There is apparently an allusion to a possible meaning in the novel's final words, which are in Latin. My Latin is very basic, so it may be that that drove me to look for a clearer answer somewhere else. I thought I found it on page 314, where Adso, thinking of the girl, observes that "the humblest rose becomes a gloss of our terrestrial progress." For me, the name of the rose is the particular way the universe has of reaching out and grabbing each person by the neck. However, this may be the fault of my rudimentary Latin.