Damn! What a horrible day for readers... we lost Harper Lee and Umberto Eco in quick succession.
Like almost every American who can be considered educated, I read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird many years ago. On the virtue of this one book, Harper Lee's spot in the literary firmament was guaranteed. One measure of the book's power is the frequency with which it has been challenged or banned in school districts. Wherever there is anxiety about large black men busting up chifforobes, the book will be considered a dangerous one. It's a paean to liberalism in the teeth of a racist culture, and a call for justice in a society in which courts shouldn't intervene to stop the execution of an innocent individual. I haven't read the recently released Go Set a Watchman, but from what I've read about it, it's a mere coda to the tour de force which is To Kill a Mockingbird.
In contrast, Umberto Eco was a prolific novelist, essayist, semiotician, and gadfly. The Name of the Rose was a marvel... simultaneously sprawling and claustrophobic. Any novel in which a Sherlock Holmes pastiche matches wits with an evil Jorge Luis Borges doppelgänger is alright with me, and the long digressions about monastic life in the Middle Ages and the tension between the Classical and Medieval worlds only sweetened the pot.
Foucault's Pendulum was catnip to me... a wonderful farrago of Kabbalah, crank pseudosciences, and outlandish conspiracy theories compiled into a grand game by a trio of smartass editors working at a vanity press using the outré writings of a gaggle of kooky 'Diabolicals'. Foucault's Pendulum was Illuminatus! written by a tweedy academic instead of a couple of countercultural tricksters, The Da Vinci Code written for brainiacs, Masters of Atlantis with jokes that necessitate an encyclopedia to get... did I say that this book was catnip to me? I love/hate bizarro conspiracy theories and 'weird science' (yo, Shaver, I'm looking at you!), so I readily identified with Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon, whiling away the hours at their job by concocting a unified theory of secret plots and recondite knowledge.
In contrast, The Island of the Day Before grabbed me to a much lesser extent- it's more limited in scope than the wide-ranging Foucault's Pendulum, but it did have some very interesting digressions about the race to discover a means to measure longitude, and the implications that such a discovery would have for the discoverers. It was an entertaining read, but it didn't hit the perfect sweet spot that Foucault's Pendulum, with its secret histories and sinister plotters, had.
I have yet to read The Prague Cemetery, but it looks like it covers some of the same ground that Foucault's Pendulum does. I think a fitting tribute to Signore Eco would be picking this one up.
It's been a bad stretch for bibliophiles... all I know is that Gene Wolfe had better be watching his health, or I'll be despondent.