To the sad necrology that has consumed the first two months of 2016, we can add two more names: Umberto Eco, the immensely learned Italian novelist, philosopher and semiotician, and Harper Lee, the Alabama novelist who with one book became one of the most beloved authors in American history. "The Name of the Rose" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" are two titles whose fame seems certain to outlast our era.
I will leave further comment about Mr. Eco's significance to those who are more familiar with his work than I. As for Ms. Lee, my thoughts about her sad, debilitated last years have not changed appreciably since my blog piece from July 2014, "A battle of mockingbirds." Of those who surrounded her in those last years--especially after the death of her sister Alice--who had her best interests at heart, and who were scavengers? To what extent, if any, was Marja Mills' book about the Lee sisters, "The Mockingbird Next Door," a genuine and authorized work? And to what extent, if any, was the publication of "Go Set a Watchman," Ms. Lee's apprentice novel, her own uninfluenced wish?
I prefer to think of both Mr. Eco and Ms. Lee in the happiest possible context: the world they shared--the world of books. A number of people have posted on Facebook a section from a documentary about Mr. Eco, in which he walks through his long, narrow apartment, the walls of every room and passageway crammed with books. This gibes nicely with Marja Mills' description of Alice and Nelle Harper Lee's tiny house in Monroeville, Ala.--one part of the book that feels absolutely true--with books piled high on every shelf and tabletop, even in an unused stove. Like any writers worth their salt, Mr. Eco and Ms. Lee had a lifelong love affair with the printed page; the life of the mind was the life they sought, and achieved. The readers they left behind can only thank them for the indelible contributions they made to that life.