Curiosity, or the exponential nature of intertext

Curiosity, or the exponential nature of intertext

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Grab any book from your shelf, and read the first few pages. Chances are, you unknowingly just skipped over a few implicit references that the book’s author left there in anticipation of another learned reader, someone who, unlike you, had read the same tomes as the writer and kept the same lessons from them. Chances are, too, that the author explicitly cited other works, ones which you might recognize, even if you’re not intimately familiar with them. Perhaps, you know the works referenced well. If you’re lucky, it is even possible that you recognize the arguments being made with or without direct allusion to their origin.

Books are historical artifacts, crystals created by a person who was defined by the times in which they lived and the places they inhabited while writing. Like the Heraclitean river, not even the author themselves could step back into the state of mind that enabled them to pen their masterpiece, so how can we expect to fully and completely understand the meaning of a work of art? Hint: you can’t. There’s no such thing as a single true meaning. This is, at least in part, why, as Samo Burja points out, re-reading books is so worthwhile.

The fact that books are artifacts of a specific time and place does not mean that they are frozen in time. The meaning that an author had in mind when they agreed for their manuscript to go to the presses, or when they hit the publish button on their blog, can’t possibly be the same as the meaning that we assign to them. The more time has passed since the original publication the more likely it is that a book will have gained a life of its own. The reader of a book written a century ago will perceive a whole other layer of meaning, as it relates to modern life, in ways that the author could not have originally intended. But the arrow of time isn’t everything, and it is possible to imagine a writer referencing a book that predates them when even the author themselves were unaware of it’s influence on their own work. Humans are pattern matchers, and even the keenest reader is easily tricked into finding intertexts where there really were none.

This model can be summarized in the table below:

Reference Not actually there Implicit Explicit
You get itThis book has gained a life of its ownCongrats, you’re well read on this topicWell, it was obvious
You don’tAs intendedGo read some moreAdd it to your stack

Much like the meaning of a book changes over time, and depends on the reader, so does its value. The more books you read, the more of the next book’s references you’ll grok. You’ll have more tools to understand what the author was actually trying to convey. Books live in a context, so the more you read the more intelligible the next book’s context will be. Thanks to the power of intertexts, knowledge is exponential. Each book you read makes you want to read another N, and makes the value of reading those same books higher by virtue of the deeper understanding you’ll get on a first read. Knowledge rewards curiosity.

As Jason Somers writes, “Good books are almost fractally deep: you find whole worlds wherever you look, and no matter how far in you zoom.” Sometimes, if we zoom in where no one had before, we might find worlds that weren’t even there in the first place. If you needed an excuse to spend more time reading books, now you have it. Go find new worlds.

Photo: Reflection river, Vienna, Austria, by me. Previously posted on Europa II, Wien MMXIX.

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