English R1A

Reading and Composition: The Rest is Commentary

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
9 Fall 2016 Magarik, Raphael
TTh 5-6:30 PM 134 Dwinelle

Book List

Broido, Luci: The Master Letters; Dante: La Vita Nuova; Eliot, T. S. : The Waste Land and Other Poems; Nabokov, Vladimir: Pale Fire


"The verse," writes an early interpreter of the Bible, "cries out, 'interpret me.'" Commentators often justify themselves in this way, deferentially insisting that earlier texts desire, need, and therefore authorize secondary supplements. But verses do not, of course, cry out, and commentators rarely serve the commented-upon text as straightforwardly as they insist. Rather it is the oddly self-effacing genre of commentary itself that calls for explanation. (Though commentary in its narrow sense involves an  exegetical text that explains a target text whose sequence it follows, we will also look at several examples that impose their own order on the target text.) What drives a writer to annotate, gloss, and explain another's work rather than writing "their own"? What do commentators owe their base texts? Why and how do different commentators disagree? Is commentary creative or parasitic?
In this class, we will examine a wide range of these second-order texts: ancient commentaries on the Bible, auto-commentary like Dante's essays discussing his romantic lyrics, and T.S. Eliot's notes to The Waste Land, all deranged commentaries that diverge wildly from their ostensible subjects, as well as harshly critical online "fiskings" and digital annotation platforms like Rap Genius, even so-called supercommentaries (that is, commentaries on other commentaries).
Wrestling with these questions will inform our own work as writers. After all, commentary straddles the boundary between reading and composition. You will do lots of writing and revision, frequently commenting on each others' drafts. We will practice the tools of analytic writing—from the elements of a good thesis to the details of sentence structure and citation—as we craft our own commentaries.

Back to Semester List