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Textual Archaeology

October 23, 2015

There’s a moment I keep having when I’m reading, a question that floats to the top of my mind and which sends me whirling down tangents until I get the plot bunnies under control again: If I was reading this 1000 years from now, what would this tell me about the early 21st century?

It doesn’t matter what I’m reading, really—fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, mystery, children’s books, essays on the internet…* I keep getting this dissociation, where I stop reading the narrative and I start doing the sorts of textual analysis I either learned to do in lit courses or that historians seem to do in their reconstruction of the past. Are future historians going to figure out what a microwave is because of scenes like this one? How well does this explain the internet, really? Is this going to survive and get taken as the Absolute Best Novel Ever, even though it’s … not? Are people going to write theses on the futurism in this space opera?

It’s like that scene from Doctor Who:

We only know about Aristotle’s Comedy by reading books that reference it, and it’s not the only work we’re missing. Love’s Labour’s Won, anyone? There’s probably lots that was written and never referenced elsewhere, or those books that referenced them are also lost to time. There are plays that Shakespeare may even have seen but we only know them from a single diary entry, and that’s only 400 years ago!

I read a book recently that took trappings of written culture—stock phrases, nursery rhymes, that sort of thing—and make them literal parts of a fantasy world. Will that book outlive other references to Mary had a little lamb or be our only surviving example of “Well, at least it can’t get any worse”? For that matter, what do the plot structure, the characterization, the tropes tell the aliens searching the ruins of our civilization in 4000 C.E.? Will they even understand what they’re looking at, or will they assume that it really does rain cats and dogs on occasion?

(Wouldn’t that be nice?)

The book I’m reading at the moment is going to tie into this musing too, I think. Not sure yet, though, I’m only a few chapters in. But right now I’m pretty impressed with how the author’s managed to tie totally disparate ideas together (with humor, no less!) to show how they actually form a whole—and I suspect the odd examples he uses are going to mesh nicely with what I’m talking about here.

At the very least, it’s a good example of the textual and contextual analysis that inspire my daydreaming.


*Actually, I probably lied. If I’m reading a Really Good Book, I’m less likely to be bumped out, I think, if only because Really Good Books tend to grab my brain with both hands and refuse to leave go. So we’re probably talking Good Books and Okay Books here. But the point stands.

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