I never saw an abbey more beautiful or better oriented, even though subsequently I saw St. Gall, and Cluny, and Fontenay, and others still, perhaps larger but less well proportioned. Unlike the others, this one was remarkable for the exceptional size of the Aedificium. I did not possess the experience of a master builder, but I immediately realized it was much older than the buildings surrounding it. Perhaps it had originated for some other purposes, and the abbey's compound had been laid out around it at a later time, but in such a way that the orientation of the huge building should conform with that of the church, and the church's with its. For architecture, among all the arts, is the one that most boldly tries to reproduce in its rhythm the order of the universe, which the ancients called "kosmos," that is to say ornate, since it is like a great animal on whom there shine the perfection and the proportion of all its members. And praised be our Creator, who has decreed all things, in their number, weight, and measure.
Author: Umberto Eco
Mini-synopsis: In the fourteenth century, Benedictine novice Adso of Melk accompanies an intellectual Franciscan monk, William of Baskerville, to a meeting of church officials at a wealthy and troubled abbey with an immense, renowned library. Upon arrival, William is requested to look into the recent, mysterious death of a gifted young manuscript illuminator. William consents, but soon finds himself investigating another death, and then another, all of which seem to center around a forbidden book. The library is off limits for investigation, the likelihood of foul play is high, and the suspects are many—and William must find answers before the Inquisition arrives to threaten him and the monastery alike.
Notes: The above quote is a beautiful thing, very near the front of the book, and it helps kick off a heady and emotional philosophical journey that made for long, but not necessarily dull, reading. The thought processes were fascinating, if often depressing, and arose naturally out of a tragic romance and a garish, Gothic, openly Holmesian detective murder mystery.
Eco, an ex-Catholic and skeptic, set his characters—compassionate ex-Inquisitor William and his wide-eyed student, Adso—to sniff out a murderer while working through concepts such as the presence of order in the universe, the righteousness of laughter and of wealth and poverty, the meaning of language and symbol, the relationship between beauty and sin, and the madness of a single truth unchecked. He is generally free of the ham-fisted ignorance that the average anti-Catholic storyteller possesses; it was impressive how far I could follow him before parting company with his ideas. I got nearly as caught up in the philosophical plot as in the mystery and was likewise enthralled by the characters, including the magnificently creepy fourteenth-century library.
I loved the journey, but I couldn't love the ending. I have never liked deconstruction, let alone the despair that usually results—but Adso's final moments with the library left me with patchy, haunting visions of beauty nonetheless.