Famous people get pigeon-holed. Unfortunately, this happens to them a lot. With very few exceptions (Ronald Reagan comes to mind), you are damned to always be remembered for that first thing that ever brought notoriety. Umberto Eco falls into this catagory, although oddly enough which box people specifically pigeon-hole him into depend on who you are talking to. Umberto Eco is largely a novelist for most Americans, an academic to certain practitioners of humanistic disciplines, and a Semiotician to people with little better to do.
But there is also a subset of Italians for whom he was a contributor to various magazines and newspapers. His more humorous pieces got collected into the book How to travel with a Salmon.
The collection was very hit or miss, which didn’t bother me to much as the majority of them were very short. There was one essay in particular that should have hit pretty close to home with me. It seemed to be a parody of some of the academic work of the color he himself may have done, all the way down to the piece included references to both Thomas Sebeok and John Searle and many more. But I just found that one in particular to be a bit dull side. Others were rather funny and absurdist look at some phenomena of every day society.
Although the essays seemed to be translated excellently, I wondered to waht extent some of them couldn’t have used another pass through the localization machine. In the piece where Eco goes into his difficulties on being reissued a lost driver’s license, it is mentioend that he goes through each of these steps with some stamps with him. While I know about the relationship between Italian bureaucracy and stamps, I suspect that your typical anglophone may not, and I wonder to what extent that line needed to be thrown in their. There were not many moments such as this, but I did encounter a few.
But largely the collection does work, and the work that it specifically does is to humanize a person who, because of the nature of the lime-light he had, never got that chance before. I once got to see Eco do a reading of some of his work and he came off as a little arrogant. From the encounters I had with him through his work, I saw him largely as something of an intellectual heavy-weight. Getting to read him talk about how his name was mocked as a child (in the most obvious way possible) or how he would think of snarky comments to reply to the people who came into his home and asked if he had read all the books in his personal collection did much to humanize him. In an era where expectations on the famous have risen a bit to high, I find it refreshing.