Although William of Baskerville describes the abbey’s library as the “greatest in Christendom,” its thousands of books are all destroyed in a raging fire at the end of Adso of Melk’s narration. Decades later, an older Adso returns the site in northern Italy where the abbey had once stood. He patiently gathers up a few tattered remains of the library: “scraps of parchment,” “intact bindings,” a few rotten pages where he can sometimes see a “title,” or “an image’s shadow” or “the ghost of one or more words.” These fragments of books symbolize the larger whole of the lost library and its vast body of knowledge. As Adso puts it, this “lesser library” is a “symbol of the greater, vanished one.” Over the succeeding years, he collects copies of books that he had seen at the abbey and tries to use these incomplete pages to imaginatively reconstruct the library. This endeavor is related to Umberto Eco’s own literary project in The Name of the Rose. Like Adso, Eco imagines a book that had once existed (the second book of Aristotle’s Poetics) but is now lost. Nevertheless, he uses the available evidence to create a plausible reconstruction of what Aristotle might have written on comedy. The notion of a fragment that can stand in for a lost whole is thus central to the novel. Adso uses the metaphor of a dismembered body in writing about the library’s fragmented and burnt remains, which he describes as “membra” and “amputated stumps of books.” By imagining these scattered parts as a symbol of the vanished body, Adso hopes that through these “fragments, quotations, and unfinished sentences…a message might reach [him]”. He devotes an entire day to a seemingly fruitless task—collecting pages of books that can no longer be read—because he believes that those fragments have a greater symbolic meaning.
The Fragments of the Library Quotes in The Name of the Rose
On sober reflection, I find few reasons for publishing my Italian version of an obscure, neo-Gothic French version of a seventeenth-century Latin edition of a work written in Latin by a German monk toward the end of the fourteenth century.
Mine was a poor harvest, but I spent a whole day reaping it, as if from those disiecta membra of the library a message might reach me. […] At the end of my patient reconstruction, I had before me a kind of lesser library a symbol of the greater, vanished one: a library made up of fragments, quotations, unfinished sentences, amputated stumps of books.