Last week saw two big losses for the literary world – Harper Lee who was 89 and Umberto Eco, 84, both passed away within a day of each other. Both, very different writers, were iconic in their own way.
Harper Lee, as is well known, after the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird had decided to let it be her only work. Something strange happened last year with Go Set a Watchman but we won’t bother going into that. Mockingbird has sold more copies than most writers would sell of ten books. A deeply human and moral story, told from the point of view of a child, it has been read by practically every generation since its publication, since it is a standard text on most school syllabuses around the world. Atticus Finch, despite his subsequent downfall last year (but again we are not going into that) has been constantly voted as one of the most inspiring fictional characters ever and there are legions of dogs named after Boo Radley.
Umberto Eco an Italian writer, a professor and a polymath was much more prolific but ultimately it is his first novel The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery set in a medieval monastery, that he is most associated with. His books which are translated from Italian, are much more challenging to read but Umberto Eco believed that challenge is what readers look for. He felt that it was only the publishers and journalists who wrongly imagined that people wanted things to be overly simple. His are not the books that can be read in one sitting but by the time the reader has finished there is a palpable feeling of the brain circuitry having increased. It is rare that people who have deep knowledge of esoteric subjects like semiotics are able to convert their learning into readable stories for the uninitiated reader.
Ultimately both writers felt burdened by their literary success and felt that the fame of their respective books overwhelmed them. Which in itself is unusual in these times when most people, leave alone writers, crave for adulation and constant media attention.