The first time I called Umberto Eco, he was sitting at his desk in his seventeenth-century manor in the hills outside Urbino, near the Adriatic coast of Italy. He sang the virtues of his bellissima swimming pool, but suspected I might have trouble negotiating the region’s tortuous mountain passes. So we agreed instead to meet at his apartment in Milan. I arrived there last August on ferragosto, the high point of summer and the day the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Milan’s gray buildings gleamed with heat, and a thin layer of dust had settled on the pavement. Hardly an engine could be heard. As I stepped into Eco’s building, I took a turn-of-the-century lift and heard the creaking of a door on the top floor. Eco’s imposing figure appeared behind the lift’s wrought-iron grating. “Ahhh,” he said with a slight scowl.
The apartment is a labyrinth of corridors lined with bookcases that reach all the way up to extraordinarily high ceilings—thirty thousand volumes, said Eco, with another twenty thousand at his manor. I saw scientific treatises by Ptolemy and novels by Calvino, critical studies of Saussure and Joyce, entire sections devoted to medieval history and arcane manuscripts. The library feels alive, as many of the books seem worn from heavy use; Eco reads at great speed and has a prodigious memory. In his study, a maze of shelves contains Eco’s own complete works in all their translations (Arabic, Finnish, Japanese . . . I lost count after more than thirty languages). Eco pointed at his books with amorous precision, attracting my attention to volume after volume, from his early landmark work of critical theory,The Open Work, to his most recent opus, On Ugliness.