I recently borrowed Umberto Eco‘s classic Foucault’s Pendulum from the University of Manchester central library. It’s a 2001 hard-bound copy in pretty good shape; the stamp sheet only registers 7 loans between 2005 and 2007 (who knows how many times the book has been loaned since the library went digital). But what’s interesting about this book is that one of the few past readers made a handful of pencil annotations on the margins. The first one, on page 60, is a statement of stylistic frustration: Eco writes “My uncle and aunt from *** arrived that evening”, and the reader has drawn an arrow pointing at the asterisks and written a question oozing frustration next to it: “Why do they do this?” This tells me that the previous reader of Foucault’s Pendulum was an introspective person, perhaps a truth seeker with little patience for literary flare. But it is the second annotation that really struck me.

Page 65. One of the novel’s main characters, a book editor, has been describing to the protagonist the four kinds of people in this world: cretins, fools, morons and lunatics (“A normal person is just a reasonable mix of these components, these four ideal types”). Morons, in particular, are dangerous for editors beause they never seem lunatics nor fools but they consistently get their reasoning wrong; they may even end up saying something right but for entirely wrong reasons. The main character agrees: “Saint Anselm’s ontological argument is moronic, for example”.

Of all the opinions and references in this dense book, it was this throway reference that got to my predecessor. This pencil-armed reader, who was clearly reluctant to deface the book’s pages with his weapon, simply could not refrain from action: he underlined the sentence, and on the margin next to it wrote a brief note: “Thank you!”

Who was this person? Obviously, he or she knows Saint Anselm with some degree of intimacy. That is a tall order; I only know Saint Anselm because it is in his chronicles that Henry Jones Sr. finds the clues for the three tests of the grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Moreover, this person not only knows Saint Anselm, he or she is familiar enough with his writing as to have developed an opinion, a strong dislike of him. So strong that this person felt compelled to annotate his agreement with the opinion of a fictional character in a novel for the benefit of future readers.

I wonder what else I will learn of this person as I keep reading the novel. What other historical figures of Western philosophy will get to his or her nerves. Foucault’s Pendulum is a fascinating -but also unforgiving- travelogue of cultural history: surely another character’s opinion or another literary reference is likely to provoke this mysterious reader. How much more will I learn about this person simply by reading through the same library loan?