Literary Allusions

20180712_160844791242616554040353.jpgI came across this quote while reading Bryan D. Estelle’s Echoes of Exodus, and I thought it, and some thoughts of my own, worth a post:

It is a difficult art, the art of the evocative quotation. The theory held by the romantics that all good writing was entirely “original” threw it into disrepute. It has been further discredited by the misapplication of scholarship and the decline in classical knowledge…for readers do not like to think that, in order to appreciate poetry, they themselves ought to have read as much as the poet himself. Also, they feel, with justice, that hunting down “allusions” and “imitations” destroys the life of the poetry, changing it from a living thing into an artificial tissue of copied colours and stolen patches. Still, it remains true that the reader who knows and can recognize these evocations without trouble gains a richer pleasure and a fuller understanding of the subject than the reader who cannot. (Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. New York:Oxford University Press, 1957, pp. 157-158).

Highet’s quote reminds us that writers are also readers. Consciously or not and in spite of efforts to be original, writers draw upon those who have written before them. Sometimes they directly quote, sometimes they imitate in content and/or form, sometime the consciously allude to something, and sometimes, there are echoes of what others have thought and written of which even they may not be conscious.

Mortimer Adler, of “Great Books” fame contended that these books are in a conversation with each other through the ages and we ought read them to overhear, and join that conversation. Today, literary theorists and biblical scholars alike speak of “intertextuality,” how various texts allude or draw upon others.

Highet’s other point here has to do with the reading experience.  While anyone may profit from and enjoy reading a text, say The Chronicles of Narnia, the experience is far richer for the reader who is aware of the biblical overtones and can delight in how Lewis draws this material. Our reading is richer, Highet contends, when we recognize the allusions a writer is making, what they meant in their original context as well as how the writer appropriate (or occasionally misappropriates) the material.

Allusions in various form are certainly important in reading the Bible. Prophets allude to the Pentateuch and historical books. New Testament writers allude, even quote from throughout the Old Testament as well as extra-biblical material. Forty some years ago, when I began reading the Bible, there were passages that spoke deeply to me. Today, understanding more of the allusions to earlier material, my understanding is even richer.

Highet does raise an issue that may be daunting to the budding reader. We often find that we haven’t read as much as the writer. Here are some things that have worked for me:

  1. Read as you can, not as you can’t. Enjoy what you can–the use of language, the thoughts and feelings they evoke, the characters, the ideas, the basic plot.
  2. Annotated editions and commentaries can draw your attention to allusions you’ve missed. I suggest reading first on your own, then with the notes.
  3. Read great and challenging works with others. I never really got C. S. Lewis Till We Have Faces until I read it with a group with some who explained the Greek mythology and how Lewis reinterpreted it,
  4. Identify and read “foundational” works often referred to by others–Greek mythology and philosophy, the Bible, Augustine, Shakespeare, and others. Every field has these from philosophy to science fiction.
  5. Come back to important books that often allude to others. Each time, your reading experience will be richer.

All of us are beginners at some point. We have a lifetime to grow in making these literary connections. Some of us got a head start with our education. Many of us didn’t, or weren’t paying attention. Truthfully, some things just don’t register until we have a little life under our belts. It also reminds us to mix old works in with new throughout our reading lives, so we can overhear that conversation across the generations, and begin to get a clue as to what they are talking about.

Don’t Read–Spritz!

A friend put me onto a new app called Spritz being developed by some Boston entrepreneurs. They claim it will enable you to read faster, up to 1000 words per minute (most of us read around 250). The key is that they eliminate the left to right motion of our eyes on the page. Instead, Spritz presents you with a box and a focal point set for maximum ease in reading and flashes one word at a time at a set amount of words per minute that the reader can adjust.

The developers claim that this not only enhances reading speed but also comprehension and this is born out in tests reading books like A Tale of Two CitiesOur optimal comprehension speed is often higher than our reading speed.

You can read more about this technology which could be embedded in web technology, smartphones, and other digital devices in a Here and Now interview with Frank Waldman, the CEO and founder of Spritz.

I’m not sure entirely how I feel about this. I don’t mind digital devices. I could actually see how it could render web content more readable and enhance comprehension of this media. I bet students will love it when they have heavy reading assignments. The print size of the words makes it easier on aging eyes as well.

But I wonder about a few things. One is, even sampling this a short time, it started feeling tedious to have my eyes fixed on this box and to pay constant attention to the rapidly changing words. Yes I comprehended the content, even at faster speeds, but I could not say I enjoyed it.

More than this, I thought about the fact that often I want to savor a book. There are some books I don’t want to end. I don’t want to read them fast. I suppose I can always elect not to do so. Just not sure that faster is better. And of course, it doesn’t work on physical books.

It also seems to have the shortcoming that I find with e-books. It is not easy to page back to something you want to check. It is just a relentless stream of words, that you can pause, to be sure.

I think I would like to try this sometime at greater length to give it a fair trial. I wonder if there are certain kinds of reading where it can be particularly useful. Just not sure I want to read this way all the time, especially when reading for pleasure.

Anybody else use this yet and what did you think?



Digital Brains?

Is our internet usage re-wiring the way we read? That’s the question posed by an article in today’s Washington Post. The article cites a Tufts cognitive neuroscientist, Maryanne Wolf, who is expressing a growing concern that extensive internet usage is re-wiring the way way we read to skim and pull out key bits of information rather than the sequential, linear way we read a page of text.

By Aschoeke [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Aschoeke [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

From the article at least, it appears that this concern is based on a growing body of anecdotal evidence, including Wolf’s own experience of trying to read Herman Hesse after a day of work on the internet.  Apparently, English department chairs from around the country are reporting the increasing difficulties students have reading classic texts, and particularly understanding long, compound sentences.

The big difference is the skimming, browsing behavior we use on the internet. Sentences tend to be shorter, we are more inclined to follow hyperlinks, text is much more interspersed with graphics,  and we look for keywords rather than read through a text. What has been noted, at least anecdotally, is that we carry over the same behavior when we read printed texts.

All this sounds like a great opportunity for a new area of cognitive neuroscience research. More immediately, though, is the question of what is to be done? For some, the response is to unplug and there is a movement afoot called “slow reading”, celebrating the unhurried engagement with a text.

I tend to work in both worlds, as is evident in the writing of this blog, and the books I review. And the article gives me pause. I see some of the same habits of skimming creeping into my reading of printed texts. I sometimes struggle with comprehending closely written works. And I wonder if I’m a bit like the hard of hearing who complains that everyone else is talking too softly. When I complain about “difficult to understand” writing, is it the writer, or is it me, the reader who has the problem?

The Post article speaks of becoming “bi-literate”, of training our children, or even ourselves, to read both ways. It seems that if this is to be the case, the cultivating of the pleasure of slow reading must be an intentional effort to counter the siren call of visual media, which is what we really are dealing with on a computer screen.

I am curious: have others noticed any change in their reading habits, particularly if you were a pre-internet reader (say before about 1995)? Your thoughts?