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Italian Author And Philosopher Umberto Eco Dead At 84

Italian writer Umberto Eco attends an event at the Paris Book Fair on March 30, 2010. Ulf Andersen/Getty Images hide caption

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Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Italian writer Umberto Eco attends an event at the Paris Book Fair on March 30, 2010.

Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Internationally acclaimed Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco has died at age 84. His death was confirmed by his American publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Born in a small Italian town in 1932, Eco is perhaps best known for his 1980 mystery novel The Name of the Rose, which is set in a monastery in the 14th century. It was an unexpected international bestseller, launching his career as an author.

Eco didn't publish his first novel until he was 48, when a friend suggested he write a detective story. Before that, his focus was medieval studies and semiotics. And even after he published novels, he said "I am a philosopher ... I write novels only on the weekends," the BBC reported.

Here's how Eco described his transition into fiction in an interview with The Paris Review:

"I have long thought that what most philosophical books are really doing at the core is telling the story of their research, just as scientists will explain how they came to make their major discoveries. So I feel that I was telling stories all along, just in a slightly different style."

He told NPR's Scott Simon last October that several of his novels like Foucault's Pendulum and Numero Zero focused on characters that he affectionately termed "losers" — because "they are more interesting than the winners."

"They have a more complicated philosophy," Eco told Scott. "And then in the world, there are more losers than winners, and so my readers can identify themselves with the characters."

Eco's works tend to be challenging and laden with obscure references. But as he told The New York Times, he considered "challenging" a compliment: "Only publishers and television people believe that people crave easy experiences."

According to the Times, he had already decided in 1995 "what he wants carved on his tombstone. In a book by the Renaissance philosopher Tommaso Campanella, a character says, 'Wait, wait,' and another man responds, 'I cannot.' "