Reading Archaeologically

Author, The Creative Habit

I read for a lot of reasons, pleasure being the least of them.

I read competitively, remembering Mark Twain’s admonition that “the man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.”

I read for growth, firmly believing that what you are today and what you will be in five years depends on two things: the people you meet and the books you read.

Mostly, I read for inspiration. But what inspires me is probably not the same as what inspires or pleases the general populace. Although I’m interested in characters and story line and sheer information, I usually read with a specific purpose. I’m searching for patterns and archetypes, concepts and situations that are so basic to the human condition that they’ll connect with an audience in a fundamental way, whether or not the audience is aware of the connection.

I tend to read “archaeologically.” Meaning, I read backwards in time. I’ll start with a contemporary book and then move on to a text that predates that book, and so on until I’m reading the most ancient texts and the most primitive ideas. For example, when I was casting about for the project that ultimately became the Bacche piece, I began by reading Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. That hooked me on Dionysus, and led me back to Carl Kerenyi’s study of Dionysos, which explained the place of goats as part of the worship of Dionysus, and the connection to the development of Greek tragedy. From there it was back to Euripides, and the text of The Baccae, at last turning to a source that Jerome Robbins had suggested to me years earlier.

I don’t know if many people read archaeologically. A lot of people I know read chronologically: if they’re tackling all of Dostoyevsky, they start with his earliest works and plow through to his last writings, in much the same fashion as they did in school. Nothing wrong with that. They want to read along as the author grows from youth to maturity.

I do it the other way, as if I’m conducting a dig. I start with where the author ended and finish where he started. I’ve done this with Melville and Balzac as well as Dostoyevsky, and each time I feel like a detective solving the mystery of how the writer got that way, not how the writer ended up. A story told backwards is just as interesting as a story told the traditional way, maybe more so. The surest method for finding the path through a maze is to start at the end and work your way back to the beginning.

When I’m reading archaeologically, I’m not reading for pleasure. I read the way I scratch for an idea, digging down deep so I can get something out of it and use it in my work. I read transactionally: How can I use this? It’s not enough for me to read a book. I have to “own” it. I scribble in the margins. I circle sentences I like and connect them with arrows to other useful sentences. I draw stars and exclamation points on every good page, to the point where the book is almost unreadable. By writing all over the pages, I transform the author’s work into my book, and mine alone. (I hope, dear reader, you’ve been doing the same to this text throughout.)

Conduct your own reading dig. Take an author or a subject and start with the most recent text. Then work your way backwards to progressively older texts. If it’s a novelist’s body of work, you’ll learn just as much about the author’s recurring themes, philosophy, and style, but trust me, you’ll see them from an entirely different point of view. If it’s a particular subject, go back to the writer’s original sources; the distance you’ve traveled with the writer and how the idea has changed will intrigue you. But you will get something more precious as well: the original idea in its ancient and most unadulterated form.

P.S. I have two other reading habits: I “read fat,” and I’m addicted to the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Reading fat” means not only reading, say, a novel, but reading related texts surrounding the novel, which may be books by the writer’s contemporaries, or commentaries on the novel, or a biography of the writer, or the writer’s letters. I admit it’s a compulsive way to read, but you mine more out of every book. You can listen fat and see fat, too. If I’m listening to a Mozart quintet, I don’t appreciate the piece as well as I do when I also listen to the works Mozart composed immediately before and after it. Likewise, with a painting, I like to see what the artist produced before and after the work at hand.

As for the OED, digging into the source of a word’s meaning is a great way to scratch for core ideas. Nothing in the English language fascinates me more than the multitude of definitions for words I think I know. Consulting the OED sitting on its table in my work area reminds me that I only know a fraction of what I think I know. Before I write about an idea such as ritual, I’ll look it up in the OED. But it’s not enough to digest the word’s sixteen definitions. Reading fat means I also look up the words immediately before and after “ritual.” You never know. The next good idea may be hiding there.