Inventing the Enemy by Umberto Eco; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 222 pages ($25).
Leave it to Umberto Eco – novelist, essayist, semiotician and philosopher – to tell us that WikiLeaks takes spying full circle. "Not even Power's innermost secrets can escape a hacker's monitoring, and therefore the relationship of monitoring ceases to be one-directional and becomes circular. The Power spies on every citizen, but every citizen, or at least the hacker appointed as avenger of the citizen, can find out all the secrets of the Power."
And true to form for an enthusiastic exigete of Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas and Eugene Sue in the same book, Eco imagines that in a WikiLeaks world come full circle, characterized by "the irresistible triumph of complete Openness," he can't help "imagining government agents riding discreetly in stagecoaches or caleches along untrackable routes, along the country roads of more desolate areas … carrying only messages committed to memory or at most hiding a few essential pieces of written information in the heel of a shoe."
And that's why you have the most paradoxically intellectual blockbuster novelist in the Western World also functioning on a witty, challenging and altogether exalted level as the world's leading practitioner of the kind of impromptu semiotic omni-commentary that Roland Barthes seemed to invent in his "mythologies."
Everything can be an Eco subject – the abortion debate (as a scholarly interpreted reading of Thomas Aquinas, no less), the absurdities of proverbs, the greater absurdities of Italian literary critics throughout history trying to keep their nation free from the moral depredations of James Joyce's "Ulysses" and, in the magnificent 2008 lecture that gives the book its title, the inescapable human need to invent enemies and all the reasons (they're fetid, they kill and eat children) why we, the righteous and worthy and unimpeachable members of our tribe, are justified in expunging them from the face of the earth. Otherwise, as Sartre might have said, Otherness seems like Hell itself. True wit and wisdom coexist with fierce scholarship inside Umberto Eco, a writer who actually knows a thing or two about being truly human.– Jeff Simon