Wednesday, June 25, 2008


T is for TEXT

As an English teacher, I’ve been dealing with texts of many kinds for many years, but only recently did I discover that, in a way, I’ve also been dealing with textiles. The American Heritage dictionary tells me that our word “text” derives from the Latin “texere”, meaning to weave or fabricate, and certainly that applies to any literature text my students and I might read. An artistic writer carefully intertwines many diverse elements into a satisfying whole, much as a textile worker weaves threads of varying thicknesses and colors into a finished pattern. As we read and study a poem or a novel, we are attempting to appreciate the fabric of the writing the way the subtle components of the text are laced together to present a beguiling final product to the reader. I use the word “subtle” advisedly, because it’s related, in its etymology, to the word “text”. Like “text”, it comes originally from the Latin “texere”, but more particularly from “subtilis”, meaning thin, fine, and precise, and referring specifically to the finest thread that passes under the warp in the weaving process. This is the thread that few of us would notice in a fabric, as hidden (or subtle) as it is, but it’s the thread that perhaps adds the most to the attractiveness of the cloth. When my students and I are probing a play or a short story, we’re looking carefully for these subtle “threads”, these concealed components that knit the work into something worthy of appreciation. We know that, like an expensive piece of textile, a work of literature contains countless strands woven together with care, and our task as literary scholars is to value and be glad about the artistry of the weaver-writer. As a final etymological note, it’s interesting to realize that the rarely used noun, “toil”, meaning a trap or snare, also derives from the same Latin root as “text”. This actually makes perfect sense, because a good literature text is a trap for the innocent reader. As we booklovers make our way through life, we are often (thankfully) ensnared by a great text, caught in the “toils” of its threads. When this happens in my English classes, we try not to fuss or fret, for some kinds of entrapment are purely delightful. When we’re caught in a story or a poem, my students and I are likely to spend our time examining the intricacy of the weaving rather than trying to escape.

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