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July 20, 1986|Scott Mahler

TRAVELS IN HYPER REALITY: ESSAYS by Umberto Eco; translated by William Weaver (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $15.95). Readers anticipating another work of fiction from the author of the best-selling mystery, "The Name of the Rose," may be mildly disappointed to know that "Travels in Hyper Reality" is a collection of articles written over the last two decades for various daily newspapers, magazines and journals. Readers familiar with Umberto Eco's work as a scholar and professor of semiology and who may be curious or even eager to know his thoughts about American culture, the Red Brigades, television, sports, Disneyland, the Middle Ages, and a wide range of other topics are probably the most likely to enjoy reading this book. "It is not a book about semiotics. God forbid," Eco writes in the preface, but his interest in the problems of communication and systems of signs enlivens most of the pieces in this collection.

Remarkably, Eco writes as knowingly and with as much verve about Superman's Fortress of Solitude, exhibits in American wax museums, and Casablanca as about the theology of Averroes, medieval social structures, and the philosophy of Roland Barthes. Observations of cultural phenomena in the United States (Eco's land of "hyper reality") and current events are often considered in a serious though not necessarily humorless tone. In an essay on wearing blue jeans, for example, Eco muses on the connections between clothing and behavior, beginning with the statement that "No everyday experience is too base for the thinking man." Other pieces are devoted more exclusively to academic topics, such as "Living in the Middle Ages" and "De Interpretatione."

Many of the pieces in this collection were translated by William Weaver, who has supplied us with numerous fine translations of contemporary Italian literature. With "Travels in Hyper Reality," he offers a minor albeit often scintillating collection of writings by one of the most influential thinkers of our time.

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