It may not be one of the great novels of all time, but one of my favorite reading experiences was Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Genre wise, it is a historical-fiction whodunit set in a medieval monastery. The story and action are great (which the film version attests to), but it also has an intellectual depth that only a professional semiotician like Eco could bring to the table. As the novel unfolds, Eco probes the deeply symbolic side of our lives, exploring how the categories we think with structure our actions and passions. (Think of the short ancient language and culture sections in Snow Crash, but this time marinating the whole thing, not just peppering here and there.)
For Eco, the swirling liturgical and religious imaginations of monks in medieval Europe shaped—for good or for ill—the way that monks understood the world. Indeed, that imagination, populated by angels, devils, and biblical figures, is almost a character of its own
Looking back, I probably liked The Name of the Rose so much because I read it as I travelled in Europe for the first time. I picked up the novel as I waited for a train in London at the start of a long solo trek to Florence. I had spent months poking around churches, castles, and museums in England during classes, so my head was full of the images Eco drew upon. I was in the perfect place—both literally and figuratively—to enjoy the work.