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Book Review: On Ugliness

I was probably four or five when my mom told me to quit staring at the man in the grocery store. He had a large lump protruding from the side of his neck.

I couldn’t look away. It wasn’t his fault, and I’ve been stared at enough by kids to know that it wasn’t my fault either. I saw something different and I looked.

Ugliness and difference are at the core of Umberto Eco’s wonderful (and beautiful) book On Ugliness. It is the companion to another great book he edited on the History of Beauty.

Eco posits that the traditional concept of ugliness has been the mere opposite of beauty. This doesn’t go far enough, and he proves it in about 450 pages of paintings, sculptures, and commentary throughout the ages.

Umberto Eco is one of my favorite authors. He’s really, really, really smart. Best known for the monk-laden mystery novel The Name Of The Rose, this professor of semiotics and all-around brilliant man is a writer I can’t do without.

The fates decreed that before I got married, I would date a lot of art history majors. On Ugliness does what they were never able to: get me to enjoy a book about the history of art.

By the way, there’s a movie for The Name Of The Rose. When we finished watching it, Janette turned to me and said, “I’ve never seen a movie with fewer hunks in it.”

She’s right, although sadly none of them appear in On Ugliness.


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  • T. Sunshine Love June 6, 2010, 7:11 pm

    I’m not much of an art appreciator but I did go through a period in my twenties where I was rewarding myself with art print books. Mostly fantasy stuff like Royo and Boris (yeah, super old school, I know) but one day I happened to pick up a book of Rembrandt. My massive book collection is long gone, but that one I kept. His people are so marvelously ugly, it’s transcendent.