From soccer's ""World Cup and Its Pomp"" to a revisionist biography of Thomas Aquinas, these essays by Italy's best-known semiologist offer eloquent testimony of an eclectic and searching intelligence. A giddier version of the late Roland Barthes (Eco travelled to the ""real"" New Orleans right after visiting Disneyland's fascimile, and for some reason was surprised to find a superior authenticity in the genuine article), Eco examines popular culture for its ""signs""--its unconscious expression of the submerged assumptions and unexamined ""verities"" which Barthes called ""myths"" and which Eco sees as ideologies. Eco often focuses on America--this volume opens with a brilliant application of Superman's ""Fortress of Solitude"" as a metaphor for such phenomena as the Hearst castle in San Simeon and the Ringling mansion in Sarasota. He makes some errors pardonable in a non-native--he tends to group California and Florida together, where an American semiotician would have little difficulty perceiving the vast differences; and he is quite unfortunate in using as his theoretical guide to Disneyland an influential but very silly essay by Louis Marin. Nonetheless, Eco also brings the freshness of viewpoint possible to an outsider to subjects ranging from Frank Frazetta's sweaty illustrations for the Conan series to American wax-museum replicas of Leonardo's Last Supper. Other essays suggest the same fascination with the Middle Ages that characterized Name of the Rose, his recent best-seller. In ""The Ten Little Middle Ages,"" Eco jokingly catalogues the various mythic assumptions about (and misreadings of) that period; and he cogently argues that medievalism persists in our own time. (He sees scholastic influence, for instance, in structuralism.) Although not as consistently accurate in his analyses as Barthes, Eco often argues with more force and passion, and overall, this is critical writing of a superb order. The range is wide (from terrorism to blue jeans, from the Madonna Inn to the Sistine Chapel) and the writing is provocative and exuberant.