10 Questions: Umberto Eco

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Baltel / Sipa

You write a novel, how do you pick your topic?
Joey O'Donnell, SOUTHBURY, CONN., U.S.
For novels, I start from an image that strikes me, without knowing what will happen around that image. In each novel, it took me six to eight years to find out the answer. For The Name of the Rose, the image was of a monk poisoned while reading a book. I was fascinated by the idea.

Do you find yourself conscious of readers while you write? Is it possible for a writer to completely disregard readers while writing?
Mahtot Teka, ADDIS ABABA
All the authors who say they write for themselves are liars. Writing is an act of communication, it's an act of love, it's something you do in order to be understood.

How did you first become interested in semiotics [the study of symbols and signs]?
Ramiro Gomez, BERLIN
To have my feet on two levels — one on high culture, and the other on low culture — I was looking to find an approach able to take into account both aspects of our cultural life. For me, that was semiotics.

Why has the intellectual community traditionally had a strong opposition to popular culture?
Jean-Baptiste De Borman, BRUSSELS
That was a phenomenon of the 1950s and early '60s. Then the landscape changed a lot. My generation was the first to take pop culture into serious consideration. Now I'm sometimes under the impression that intellectuals are too concerned with popular culture. As soon as you learn about low culture, you become so fascinated by it that you become a member of the sect. You discover that comic books have a language of their own, and even though you were an intellectual before, you become a worshipper of comic books.

Which philosopher has influenced you the most?
Lucilla Teoh, SINGAPORE
I wrote my dissertation on Thomas Aquinas and he remains a great model of honest reason. In the last decades I've been more and more influenced by the American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce. He was a great genius, one of the inventors of modern semiotics.

It has been 60 years since the Marshall Plan revitalized a reeling Europe. Isn't it time for the U.S. to once again assume the mantle of moral leadership by implementing a similar plan for Africa?
Yes. It can only be positive. That would probably also solve many problems in the Middle East, by solving problems around it.

What do you see as Americans' chief fault?
Drew Renner, SANTA FE, N.M., U.S.
The present flaw of the American administration is not paying enough attention to history. There is an attitude, even in universities, that considers history as something remote and not useful.

Could there be a balance between art and science?
Nahum Gershon, BETHESDA, MD., U.S.
Let us not exaggerate. A lot of scientists have clear philosophical ideas, and lots of humanists, writers and philosophers are interested by scientific problems. The division is not so strong as people believe.

Are we devaluing expert opinions through our reliance on user-created content such as Wikipedia or blogs?
Luca Zanzi, ALLSTON, MASS., U.S.
In a way, yes. The Internet is still a very dangerous weapon. It can serve for defense, or it can blow up in your hands and produce disasters.

You once wrote that humor was the only way to preserve truth. How accurate is that today?
D.W. Younker, ST. CLOUD, MINN., U.S.
Humor is a way to survive. It can be a weapon, a shield against fundamentalism and fanaticism, and it can settle intellectual debates. But it can't solve life's problems.