Close Encounters of the Literary Kind: Introduction

Occasionally I would like to write about the authors I have had the good fortune to meet in person. Since this blog is intended to serve as a sort of testing ground for my other more scholarly writing, this particular set of posts will go on and on and lean toward the more gossipy nature I tend to ignore but love. Like the other posts in “c’era una volta,” these posts should also be considered rough drafts written in an impulsive spirit.

One of the great advantages to specializing in contemporary world literature is the possibility of meeting those authors one teaches and writes about.  There is very little of the romantic digging through the archive for me; give me flesh and blood, bad breath and sweaty palms.  With a few exceptions, I’ve managed to meet most of my contemporary literary heroes.  Meeting one’s heroes, however, does not come without its risks.  Nevertheless, I find myself attracted to the literati in ways that teenagers might be attracted to pop stars.  Authors are my rock stars, and for the most part, they seem to enjoy the attention.

As a graduate student in upstate New York, I was able to make my way to New York City several times a year to hear authors speak at venues like the 92 Street Y.  My first encounter was with my unofficial mentor, Umberto Eco.  I had read everything Eco had written up to that point, and, for me, it was like going to meet the Oracle at Delphi.  When Eco emerged on stage of the 92nd Street Y, I experienced my first feelings of coming into contact with a famous writer.  After an hour of speaking and taking questions, the audience began to line up to have their books signed.  I brought only one to be signed; The Island of the Day Before. It never occurred to me to lug all of his books the three hours to New York.  In fact, I was mystified that most of the people in line did lug as many as five or six books with them.  It didn’t take long to grow annoyed at the slow process of moving up toward Eco to have my copy signed.  From that day on I vowed never to bring more than one book with me to a signing.

When I finally got to Eco to have him sign my book I was charmed.  I told him how much I enjoyed his work and about the influence it had on me.  Despite the long line of people behind me, he asked me several questions and seemed to be genuinely interested in what I had to say.  Through the course of our brief conversation it came out that he knew Rosemarie LaValva, a teacher I had at Binghamton and a member of my dissertation committee.  Eco asked me about my dissertation and asked me to send him a copy.  I was blown away.  I have never forgotten that moment and on the several occasions when I have met Eco since we always come back to a discussion about my own work.

That first literary encounter with Umberto Eco could have been a disaster.  If it had been it would have set the tone for all subsequent encounters with authors for me.  Not only is Eco extremely charming, he is incredibly generous with his time.  His books and their influence on me was the tipping point in my life as a young scholar.  That meeting made me realize that I wanted to be like Eco.  Of course I’m nowhere near as talented or smart as he.  Nevertheless one could not hope for a better role model.

Meeting people one admires is always a gamble.  Meeting Umberto Eco was and still is the thrill of my life so far.

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