Relic, relique, reliquus: Part I

Recently, two unusual objects entered my life: an icon, and an old newspaper article.

The icon, of St. Nicholas  (good name), was made in Minsk -- the gift of a Belarus friend. The saint's holy image is painted on a thin slip of parchment that's been pasted to the smooth side of a piece of birch. There's still bark on the rough side, and when I close my eyes, I almost can see the forest in which that tree once stood.

The other item is a 50-year-old newspaper article showing a Pennsylvania church committee. There's my father, slim, trim and bow-tied, standing in the back row. I once stuck that article in a book to protect it and ensure that it wouldn't get lost -- and then I nearly lost it. I'm so glad I didn't.

It's not hard to understand why these two objects are important relics to me. The personal and religious meaning are pretty accessible.

Not all artifacts, however, yield their meanings so easily -- and a writer like Umberto Eco has spent his career examining, often excavating, the meanings in cultural objects past and present. In his latest book, "Inventing the Enemy: Essays" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Eco takes readers on another of his pleasing travels in the worlds of arcana. Is "The Name of the Rose" on your list of essential novels? If it is, then you're going to love this book.

What's one of the natural enemies of an old relic? Eco tells us.

It's science. An aura clings to old objects: when I place a lit votive candle in front of St. Nicholas, the icon glows. Too much analysis dispels the light, blows out the candle. As Eco says, in the essay "Treasure Hunting," "we should not approach...reliquaries with a scientific mind; otherwise there's a risk of losing faith..."

"As I child," Eco says in another essay, "Imaginary Astronomies," "I dreamed over atlases. I imagined journeys and adventures in exotic lands..."

That essay goes on to examine versions of our imagined orld in the work of many thinkers--among them Dante, Cosmas Indicopleustes (say it three times fast), Copernicus. It is a spectacular survey from Eco, our foremost explorer of terra incognita.

This essay collection demonstrates why Eco is among the best practitioners of nonfiction today. I wish I could say the same about his fiction. Once, he was a sublime craftsman of fiction and nonfiction: His novels struck a marvelous balance between plot and antique morsels about the way the world used to be (or never was).  That balance has tipped in recent years. Though I admired the 2011 novel "The Prague Cemetery" (despite its repulsive narrator) in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, I was more interested in the research than the story. That's where Eco's passion seemed to be in that novel, too.

Which is why "Inventing the Enemy: Essays" is such a welcome book: Here you'll get the writer's engaged, inspired considerations in the raw -- all free from any plodding novelistic apparatus.