The difference between reading popular fiction and a really well crafted novel is like being accustomed to eating dry pasta with a jarred sauce --maybe even a really good, organic jarred sauce-- and someone serves you homemade gnocchi with a good authentic bolognese and sprinkles fresh parmigiano over the top. Then they light a candle and offer you a nice wine from the Gallo Nero region. The latter option is a lot of work for one meal. It takes a lot of energy, so maybe you have to pay a lot at a restaurant or do all the work yourself.
I feel the same way when I read Umberto Eco. I never relax when I read his work. He doesn't create images that wash over me. There are so many subtle flavors and sensations in his work that you almost emerge feeling nourished in some way. Like many other great contemporary writers, his prose style invokes the visual arts and the ephemeral rhythms of music.
When I started reading the Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana it felt like work. The protagonist, Yambo, a 60-year-old rare book dealer from Milan, wakes up in a hospital with no memory of his life. All he can remember are phrases from everything he has read or songs he has heard and he must sift through old journals and books in his boyhood home in order to reconstruct his life. I thought I was in for a frustrating story about memory loss. What I am gaining instead (I still haven't finished) is an amazing portrait, reconstructed through great literature, popular songs, news reports and comic books, of a generation. The aspect of the book that has been haunting me lately is where he describes the schizophrenic aspect of the boyhood experience he is unearthing. He hears patriotic calls to war in the fascist anthems, while the popular songs played on the radio reassured listeners with optimistic, diverting content.
He described how both he, and his elders were raised in a "cult of horror," being taught to feel patriotic excitement when faced with a landscape filled with blood. Eco quotes encomiums to war from such a huge array of sources that I couldn't help but draw a parallel to what we're teaching our children about war in our culture today. Yeah, that's right, those homemade gnocchi are sometimes really, really heavy, but damn are they good.
OK so here's a link to Hazan's Bolognese from the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking if you're inspired. I double the amount of freshly ground nutmeg and you can add porcini mushrooms. Have a few hours and want fresh gnocchi?