Death of the Critic

Critical Touchstones

Written by: Tom Blaich

When reading a text,
it is important to build out your toolkit, your set of references for how you look at a work. And while every person’s is different, there are a few tool that everyone should have in their arsenal. Texts reference ideas that they expect the reader to be at least partly familiar with, as the goal is to have the audience understand. There are a few broad cultural touchstones that we keep looking back to for our works: the Bible, and Shakespeare.

These two bodies of work are deeply ingrained in Western culture. Over 70% (2014 Pew Research Center) of the United States population identifies as Christian, and an astounding number of people grow up going to church and learning about the Bible. Go into any hotel room in the country and chances are that you’ll find a Bible of some sort. Shakespeare is taught in almost all public schools and plays like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are known by all, at least in some capacity. Even if you haven’t read these text yourself, you still know of them, and know enough to be able to recognize overt references to the material.

By building in references from these texts, the authors invites the reader to connect the dots, to use this knowledge as a starting point to interpret their work. As critics, it is our responsibility to learn to recognize these references and go down this rabbit hole to find the meaning behind them. When looking at a text, it is always a good idea to stat with the basics. By finding these easily identifiable, it gives us a jumping off point to look at the text more closely. We’ve talked about Christ figures before, but this applies to so much more: apples, serpent, Joshua(s), and Abraham(s), and crosses. Add in warring families, paranoid kings, and ghosts, and you can build an effective set of references to better understand stories.

As Thomas Foster says in his book How to Read Literature like a Professor “when we recognize the interplay between these dramas, we become partners with the new dramatist in creating meaning.” The author is asking us to make these connection by working in these references, and by taking the leap to connect these dots, we can learn more about the text itself.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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