(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

It is doubtful that this collection of Eco’s essays about America would have been published had the publisher not wished to capitalize on Eco’s celebrity following the unprecedented (and unanticipated) success of The Name of the Rose, a best seller. It is fortunate that these essays have been collected because they shed considerable light upon Eco’s philosophical concerns.

The title essay, “Travels in Hyper Reality,” is particularly enlightening. It delves into America’s small places that are untouched by big-city sophistication and remote from the floods of information that assail people in urban areas. Eco contends that Americans insist on creating icons that are perfect replications of the realities they are meant to depict. He tells of stumbling upon seven three-dimensional replications in wax of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper on the four-hundred-mile trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles alone. He muses on the Lyndon B. Johnson Memorial in Texas, with its inch-by-inch replication of the Oval Office.

Throughout Travels in Hyper Reality, Eco pursues the question that has engrossed philosophers in the millennia since pre-Socratic materialism was eclipsed by Platonic idealism: What is real? He grapples also with the question of how societies depict what is called the great chain of being. For Americans, the answer seems to be to create and enshrine hyperrealities, often garish ones, that either replicate or miniaturize enough elements of the past to preserve it and lend it reality.