On November 19th, 1863, a national leader delivered one of the most powerful speeches ever given... in about two minutes.
As a highlight to our next key of reading well... let's make a temporary and silly adjustment to greatness - in the form of a mad lib from the first half of our famous speech. I'll pick eleven parts of speech at (more or less) random and will replace the words with my offerings here.
1. noun - salad tongs
2. noun - sheepshank
3. adjective - pretty
4. noun - ten gallon hat
5. verb - tickled
6. verb - pulled
7. verb - baste
8. adjective - hideous
9. noun - ice cream
10. verb - punted
11. noun - banana
"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in salad tongs, and dedicated to the sheepshank that all men are created pretty. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that ten gallon hat, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot tickle, we cannot pull—we cannot baste—this ground. The hideous ice cream, living and dead, who punted here, have consecrated it far above our poor banana to add or detract... "
It's not just you, that is altogether ridiculous.
Here's the point: the choices made in communication matter deeply. And they matter deeply down to the individual word. The second key to reading well is to ask, "Why 'This' rather than 'That'"?
The move is to find key elements, passages, details, even words and ask why "this" particular word and not "that" one? This will open floodgates of meaning in your text and patterns with connections will start to emerge. What I'm resisting here is the idea that this kind of reading is completely subjective - that you have your interpretation and I have mine and all ideas about a text are valid because we can say very little with certainty.
I don't believe that is true. There are good readings and bad ones. And the best reading of a text will follow it's structure, assumptions and meaning through to the lowest level of detail, carefully uncovering the depth and heart of what is being said. It will be repetitive in textual clues and remarkably consistent.
Here are the words we replaced badly with our exercise:
1. noun - liberty v. salad tongs
2. noun - proposition v. sheepshank (kind of knot)
3. adjective - equal v. pretty
4. noun - field v. ten gallon hat
5. verb - dedicate v. tickle
6. verb - consecrate v. pull
7. verb - hallow v. baste
8. adjective - brave v. hideous
8. noun - men v. ice cream
9. verb - struggled v. punted
10. noun - power v. banana
Simply considering those words in the larger and vague context of the Gettysburg Address is a powerful idea. But honing in and taking the second highlighted word as an example, why "proposition"? Why not "assertion" or "opinion"?
Well, that's a good question, let's start with the idea that the dictionary definition of proposition has three senses:
First, it can be the assertion of a judgment as in the premise of an argument. Something is proposed, then examined, to be proven or not.
Second, it carries the idea of a plan or notion to be acted upon, i.e., a business proposition.
Third, it is sometimes used for the suggestion of physical intimacy. To proposition someone, in the right context, might involve smoking jackets and smooth, smooth jazz.
Part of the answer for our "this" versus "that" word in proposition is that "assertion" and "opinion" simply don't carry the second two meanings in the same way.
At Gettysburg, it is fascinating that Lincoln takes us back to the Declaration of Independence and not to the Constitution. In the word, "proposition" he is asking his listeners to consider anew the idea of America at it's very beginning. He is taking us back to the idea that all men are created equal, before that idea became the founding principle for a nation. However, he's not just asking us to consider the idea, he's asking us to buy in and be invested in the notion in the sense of responding to a business proposition. He wants us to take action and go... where the proposition of all men being created equal will lead us.
And while Lincoln isn't trying to "hook up" with the crowd in any direct or inappropriate sense in the sober aftermath of the battlefield... it isn't too much of a leap to suggest that this idea is an intimate one. He wants us to be joined with this idea as if we were one flesh with it. He wants us to find this idea desirable and he wants us to take action.
Why "this" rather than "that"? is a powerful weapon in reading well. Proposition is the perfect word for where Lincoln is going and even a cursory look at the single word leads us to a deeper insight of the Address. Rinse and repeat and you'll be amazed what comes to the fore.
In something of a penance, here is the full and correct text of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and an audio performance of it, read by Daniel Day Lewis as his character in the film Lincoln.
"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
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