The Reading of Mystery and the Mystery of Reading

Where do these tracks lead?

The trail comes out from under the trees, onto open savannas, where first we stood and began to follow animal traces with our eyes, reading signs and reconstructing stories of our prey. The path winds around a method of examination and interpretation of detail, which we might, in retrospect, call the art of detecting, modeled in a folk tale first known in the west as “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Next the trail moves upward through the scientific methodology and logic of Voltaire’s Zadig and reaches a summit in the technique of ratiocination in Edgar Allan Poe’s definitive mysteries. Eventually, the tracks continue across the screen and lead all the way to–

Well, I wouldn’t want to give it away.

By inviting the reader to participate in the resolution of the mystery, Poe established the genre. Taking advantage of the formal aspects of this type of tale, a tale of detection, which goads the reader into examining and interpreting detail, Poe was in effect encouraging close reading and even literary interpretation. For the art of detecting and the art of reading are so closely intertwined that we may call them the same act.

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Hunters, the First Readers to Tell a Story

The technique of examining and interpreting signs, which may be called “reading,” can be traced back to hunting. Many animals track by smell, which communicates directly to the instincts. Does it smell bad? Stay away! Does it smell good? Follow it and eat it! When a wolf comes across the scent, it doesn’t wonder which direction to go, it doesn’t interpret the smell. If the wolf turns left and the yummy deer smell fades, it turns to the right where the smell is fresher.

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