Two literary giants -Harper Lee and Umberto Eco – have passed away

Sad news in the literary world today as both Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird and Italian author Umberto Eco, author of In the Name of the Rose, among other novels, have both passed away.

Harper Lee’s renown in the United States is nearly unmatched –  a 2013 study found that To Kill a Mockingbird is the most commonly read novel in grades 9 & 10 in American high schools, and if not for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it would be the most commonly read text of any written format as well.

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The American Film Industry named Atticus Finch the greatest cinematic hero of the 20th century, and in a 2015 poll from Out of Print Books, To Kill a Mockingbird was rated the best book of all time. Few authors have had such a great impact on the literary landscape primarily on the strength of a single book – up until the 2015 release of Go Set a Watchman, Mockingbird was Lee’s sole novel.

While far less popular in the United States, Umberto Eco is one of the greatest European authors of the 20th century. His novels Foucault’s Pendulum and In the Name of the Rose are novels that combine medieval history with a contemporary academic, and action-driven setting; think “Da Vinci Code” but far more literary… Attached below is Eco’s famous short essay, “How to React to Familiar Faces” in which he meditates on the blurred line between reality and fiction that has been accelerated by our increasing interaction with actors and characters whom we only know from the two-dimensional screen.

How to react to familiar faces – Umberto Eco

A few months ago, as I was strolling in New York, I saw, at a distance, a man I knew very well heading in my direction. The trouble was that I couldn’t remember his name or where I had met him. This is one of those sensations you encounter especially when in a foreign city, you run into someone you met back home, or vice versa. A face out of context creates confusion. Still, that face was so familiar that, I felt, I should certainly stop, greet him, converse; perhaps he would immediately respond, ”My dear Umberto, how are you?” or “Were you able to do that thing you were telling me about?” And I would be at a total loss. It was too late to flee. He was still looking at the opposite side of the street, but now he was beginning to turn his eyes towards me. I might as well make the first move; I would wave and then, from his voice, his first remarks, I would try to guess his identity. We were now only a few feet from each other, I was just about to break into a broad, radiant smile, when suddenly I recognized him. It was Anthony Quinn. Naturally, I had never met him in my life, nor he me. In a thousandth of a second I was able to check myself, and I walked past him, my eyes staring into space.

Afterwards, reflecting on this incident, I realized how totally normal it was. Once before in a restaurant, I had glimpsed Charlton Heston and had felt an impulse to say hello. These faces inhabit our memory; watching the screen, we spend so many hours with them that they are as familiar to us as our relatives, even more so. You can be a student of mass communication, debate the effects of reality, or the confusion between the real and the imagined, and expound the way some people fall permanently into this confusion: but still you are not immune to the syndrome. And there is worse. I have received confidences from people who, appearing fairly frequently on TV, have been subjected to the mass media over a certain period of time. I am not talking about Johnny Carson or Oprah Winfrey, but public figures, experts who have participated in panel discussion often enough to become recognizable. All of them complain of the same disagreeable experience. Now as a rule, when we see someone we don’t know personally, we don’t stare into his or her face at length, we don’t point out the person to the friend at our side, we don’t speak of this person in a loud voice when he or she can overhear. Such behavior would be rude, even – if carried to far-aggressive. But the same people who would never point to a costumer at a counter and remark to a friend that the man is wearing smart tie behave quite differently with famous faces. My guinea pigs insist that at a newsstand, in the tobacconist’s as they are boarding a train or entering a restaurant toilet, they encounter others who, among themselves, say aloud, “Look there’s X”. Are you sure?” Of course I am sure, It’s X, I tell you, “And they continue their conversation amiably, while X hears them and they don’t care if he hears them: it’s as if he didn’t exist. Such people are confused by the fact that a protagonist of the mass media’s imaginary world should abruptly enter real life, but at the same time they behave in the presence of the real person as if he still belonged to the world of images, as if he were on a screen, or in a weekly picture magazine. As if they were speaking in his absence. I might as well have grabbed Anthony Quinn by the lapel, dragged him to a phone booth and called a friend to say, ”Talk about coincidence! I’ve run into Anthony Quinn. And you know something? He seems real! (After which I would throw Quinn aside and go on about my business). The mass media first convinced us that the imaginary was real, and now they are convincing us that the real is imaginary; and the more reality the TV screen shows us, the more cinematic our everyday world becomes.

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