Key One: A Text Will Tell You How to Read It
One of the biggest mistakes in reading is not engaging our text on its own terms. I’ve come to believe that a text will tell you how to read it, and often early on. This is especially true in world class writing, but almost any communication will set the terms of engagement in its beginning.
It’s a front door key, if you will… and paying attention here will orient us on the perspective we need to read well. So pay special attention to beginnings, to language and context that is given immediately and to the common sense attributes of how we should be reading.
Let’s look at a few examples to highlight how this might work.
1) “Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.” (The Iliad, Book I by Homer)
Here’s the move. Knowing nothing else about The Iliad what is this epic poem about? It’s about Achilles, his response of anger, and this causing a whole lot of trouble for the Greeks.
You’re off to a solid reading of Homer. The entire plot of The Iliad is driven by our hero and his choices. At least in part, this work is about the interaction of his will and the will of the gods intermingling and how one man can tip the balance of a war between puissant city states.
Homer just hands it to us. Here’s what’s about to happen, pay attention to Achilles and his anger and follow it to the end.
Example two, is from one of the most famous first lines in all of literature.
2) “Call me Ishmael.” (Moby Dick, Herman Melville)
This is good on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start.
The direct address of the character to the reader engages us and draws us into the story. The speaker isn’t informing us of a name as much as asking us to be a participant - for us to actively call the speaker by the name given. It’s not, “Hey, my name is Ishmael.” The word, “call” goes beyond naming and speaks to the act of relationship, of summoning, or purpose and even perhaps of call and response.
The name Ishmael comes from the book of Genesis where Abraham and Sarah are weary of waiting for God to deliver on the child of promise. So, they decide to take matters into their own hands and help the will of God along by having Abraham impregnate Hagar, a servant. The resultant child was named Ishmael, and while he was technically Abraham’s first born, he was cast aside when Isaac arrived. And both Hagar and Ishmael were eventually driven out of the household altogether by Sarah, for understandable, if not charitable, reasons.
If Isaac was the child of promise, then Ishmael is the child of exile. Instead of being miraculous, Ishmael is the poor substitute of unfaithful union and mankind’s over-reaching to the plan of the divine. There is a sadness that comes with the name, the identity of second class, through no fault of his own.
So what can we say given only the first line of Melville? This tale is not going to be a happy one.
We know that before we even get started and because Melville knows his business. This narrative will take the path of the disenfranchised, the one who struggles in the desert (as it were) and whose fight will, by nature of identity, never be won. With “Ishmael” as an indicator, the text is telling us that this narrative will be of someone drawn into events beyond their control.
And just like that, you’re in the right space to dig into Moby Dick.
A text will tell you how to read it.