Umberto Eco's Cloistered World

The village of Monetecerignone, deep in Italy's Appenine Mountains, is far from Umberto EcoÂ's Milan home. So years ago, when Eco stumbled across a long-abandoned farmhouse in the valley, the Italian professor told his German wife, Renate, he had to have it.

And as CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Anthony Mason reports, it was in that dwelling, cloistered in a small converted chapel at the far end of the family home, that EcoÂ's magical mysteries came to life.
"ItÂ's a quiet landscape," says Eco. "A beautiful place to stay with friends and to work."

Upon seeing the house, his wife had a slightly different sentiment. "Give me one good reason why," she said.

"I said, 'I want to, during the most stormy night, walk around those corridors and rooms with a torch in my hand and [an] immense sense of power in my heart,'" he says.

For Eco, a scholar who likes to think and an author who likes to write, it was the ideal retreat. And 20 years ago, after Eco sat down to write his first novel at the age of 48, quiet was something he suddenly desired.

When it was published in 1980, The Name of the Rose, a labyrinthian tale of murder in a medieval monastery, became a global phenomenon, translated into 35 languages and selling 10 million copies.

It made a celebrity of a little-known semiotics professor, who now draws standing-room only crowds at book signings.

And when asked why he thinks his novels are bestsellers, Eco has a simple answer: "Because the readers are more intelligent than publishers believe."

And more intelligent than journalists, who, Eco complains, are always posing the insulting question.

"'Tell me why do so many people like your books?' And I feel offended. ItÂ's like asking a beautiful woman why all the men are in love with you," he says. "Well, because I am beautiful."

While the film version of The Name of the Rose, starring Sean Connery, brought Eco more fame, the writer says he also sacrificed something.

"You lose one of your powers as an authorÂ…to give your readers the possibility of imagining each of them a different face for the character," he explains. "You write the book in order to get this result. Otherwise you would paint a painting."

His later novels, FoucaltÂ's Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before have been more modest successes, but each took him nearly eight years to write.

"As a narrator, I can start only when I have a very poignant image," says Eco. "With The Name of the Rose, it was the idea of a poisoned monk."

As a professor of semiotics, Eco studies signs and symbols of culture. In his book, How to Travel With a Salmon, a collection of his Italian newspaper columns, Eco revels in the absurdities of modern life.

He's never owned a cell phone. "I donÂ't like to receive messages," Eco says. "I star a communication. But I donÂ't like to receive messages. The people who have something to tell me know how to reach me....So I don't need cell phones."

But he does have a passion for books. He has 30,000 in his personal collection, which on two occasions have caused the walls of his apartment to collapse.

What doesnÂ't fit in his apartment fills a wing in the Montecerignone house. EcoÂ's latest book is a scholarly treatise that examines how we know what we know.

"This is a hard-core book. ItÂ's not a page turner," he explains. "You have to stay on every page for two weeks with your pencil. In other words, donÂ't buy it if you are not Einstein."

In it, Eco wonders what the philosopher Emmanuel Kant might have said if he had lived to see a duck-billed platypus.

"I thought that if Kant saw a platypus, he had to change his entire theory of knowledge," says Eco. "Because a platypus challenges every theory about our ways of categorizing, of naming, of classifying animals."

Eco himself can be hard to classify. Philosopher, occasional crime novelist, he even plays the recorder.

But whatever peace he sought in the Appenines, Eco says he is lost without at least three things to do. At 67, the professor is still an omnivorous predator, restlessly stalking the stalls of knowledge back and forth, across cultures and history.

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