The Delicious Misunderstandings of Books


Rob Bogaerts: Umberto Eco, 1984

by Paul Vacca

In 1977, Umberto Eco, then a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna in Italy, published Come si fa una tesi di laurea (How To Write a Thesis), a book especially for his college students facing the challenge of the university thesis (the famous Italian “laurea”). Originally written with the idea of avoiding the tedious repetition of the same advice every year, the book has met with unexpected editorial success far beyond the academic circle.

In 2015, it even received French and American translations. But why translate an obviously obsolete book, devoid of any reference to the internet or Google, even if the author has an excuse (in 1977, Larry Page and Serguei Brin were only 4-years-old and the internet would wait another 18 years)? And what is the point of talking about this book today, to you, who probably doesn’t have a university thesis to write right now?

Simply because books always give us something different than what we expect from them.

An anecdote reported by Eco in the book offers a splendid demonstration. In the section entitled “Scientific Humility”, the semiologist recounts how his own student thesis (devoted to the aesthetic problem in St Thomas Aquinas) was saved by the unexpected encounter with a book on a bookseller’s shelf on the banks of the Seine in Paris. A particularly enlightening passage in a book written by an abbot called Abbé Vallet enabled him to escape the philosophical impasse in which he found himself at the time.

When Come si fa una tesi di laurea came out in Italy, Beniamino Placido, a philosopher and friend of Eco, made the mischievous assumption in the daily newspaper La Repubblica that the book and the abbot had been a pure invention. According to him, his friend presented his research in the manner of those tales he loves to decipher, where the character lost in the woods – like him writing his thesis – suddenly meets a “donor” who gives him a “magic key” to find his way back.

Some time later Eco meets Placido: he tells him that Abbé Vallet really exists and that he still owns the book at home; just as he perfectly remembers having annotated the saving idea with a large red exclamation mark in the margin. So an appointment is made.

That day, after serving two glasses of whisky, the semiologist climbed the ladder to reach the famous book that had been waiting for him for twenty years, nestled in a high shelf. He finds it, dusts it off, opens it with some emotion, looking for the fateful page.

Then, he stumbles upon its magnificent red exclamation mark in the margin!

Triumphant, Eco shows the page to his friend, then reads the saving passage. He rereads it once, twice, panting, then puts the book down, dumbfounded: the abbot does not make any connection (which had seemed so brilliant to him at the time) between the theory of judgment and the theory of beauty.

So, for twenty years he had been grateful to Abbé Vallet who had given him nothing! It was Eco himself who had made his own “magic key”!

A delicious misunderstanding. Yet this did not prevent Eco from paying tribute to the man who had unknowingly helped him by offering to Abbé Vallet, two years later, a fictional role as the donor of a lost manuscript in The Name of the Rose, a novel that millions of readers around the world now know never mentions “a rose” except in a splendid and obscure final Latin verse.

Just as How to Write a Thesis is perhaps not so much about the thesis as it is about the exhilarating adventure of discovering and sharing the fruits of an intellectual quest. Whether it is conducted with paper, scissors, index cards or with Google.

About the Author

Paul Vacca is a novelist, essayist and speaker. He gives courses and lectures at the Institut Français de la Mode (IFM Paris), Technocité (Brussels) and collaborates with the think-tank Volta (Milan). He writes a weekly column for the Belgian magazine Trends-Tendances and for the French magazine Ernest. He is the author of 4 novels and 5 essays. His first novel La Petite Cloche au son grêle (Mum, Marcel Proust and Me) published in paperback at Le Livre de Poche in 2013 have met a great success and was translated in Japan, and won several prizes (Madeleine d’Or Marcel Proust 2009 – Laureate of the First Novel Festival of Chambery, Laval and Mouscron…). Recently published, two literary essays Michel Houellebecq, phénomène littéraire published by Robert Laffont (2019) and Les vertus de la bêtise (“On Stupidity – And How It Can Make Us Smarter”) by the Editions de l’Observatoire (2020). He is currently working on the adaptation of his latest novel Au jour le jour (“The Feuilletonist”) for the screen.


From the Dutch National Archives.

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