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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

March 13, 1994|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

SIX WALKS IN THE FICTIONAL WOODS by Umberto Eco. (Harvard University Press: $18.95; 148 pp.) These are the six Norton lectures given by Eco in 1993, and reading them is indeed like wandering in the woods (as Eco quotes Borges--a garden of forking paths). They might in fact be called, more prosaically, "How to Be a Good Reader," for Eco, in his incredibly manipulative way, has you eating out of his hand by the end of them. You want to be a good reader, a "model reader," a "second-level," not a mere "first-level" reader. We don't want to wander off on our own in a text, now do we? We might get lost, now mightent we? In the lecture, "The Possible Woods," Eco tells the story of a careful reader who did not properly "suspend disbelief," and wrote to Eco (who has a computer program that tells him where the stars were on any given night he wants to write about) to tell him that on a particular night in one of Eco's novels, on a particular street, the newspapers point out there was a rather large fire that did not figure in Casaubon's walk down the rue Reaumur. First-level! First-level boor! Detail monger! No, Eco smiles kindly on this wayward son. He is doing what we all do when we read fiction--we depend on the narrative to "give form to that shapeless and immense universe," "we give sense to the immensity of things that happened, are happening, or will happen in the actual world. By reading narrative, we escape the anxiety that attacks us when we try to say something true about the world." In the actual world, says Eco, we wonder "whether there is a message, and if so, whether this message makes sense. With fictional universes, we know without a doubt that they do have a message and that an authorial entity stands behind them as creator, as well as within them as a set of reading instructions." There is another school of writing and reading, I believe, that says the best authors, parents, teachers, gods and minor deities are the ones that actually stay in the wings, that give their readers, children, apostles and worshipers an exhilarating sense of freedom; an endless variety of interpretations and meanings.

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