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Sample Summary of "Coming to Terms"

Clare D.

In his article "Coming to Terms," Joe Harris describes three things for a writer to think about when interpreting the texts of other writers. First, Harris talks about a short story called "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," in which the main character, Pierre Menard, rewrites some of Cervantes's Don Quixote. It seems a weird example to choose, but Harris's point is that Pierre Menard needed to rewrite Don Quixote in order to understand it. We rewrite texts because "we need to make sense of them" and "all readings are interested." "You thus need not only to explain what you think it means but to say something about the perspective from which you are reading it" (13).

Next, Harris talks about "Defining the Project of a Writer," which may be something you have to do before your can figure out your own ideas. The writer's project might not have a thesis, and so you have to ask yourself the questions "What is this writer trying to do in this text? What is his or her project?," etc. Basically this means that you should look for the ideas and questions that the writer "throws forward" (17). One thing I found useful here was Harris's idea that we should be generous with other writers and describe their moves, aka their "aims, methods, and materials," not their thesis statements, which might end up not showing a lot of respect for their whole thought process (18-19).

Thirdly, Harris discusses "Noting Keywords and Passages," which is really about quoting and when to do it. Here you have to ask "What aspects of this text stand out for me as a reader?" (20). It's important not to quote too much, but to choose quotes that direct readers' attention to what you thought was important about a text, especially quoting "when it is more contentious" and these are "flashpoints, moments given a special intensity" in the text (21-22).

Finally, Harris writes about "Assessing Uses and Limits." Here he asks us to think about when texts "have moments of both insight and blindness"--which basically gets back to his idea about generosity (25). You have to find the limits of the argument, without dismissing it entirely. Overall, Harris's essay is helpful to a writer who is learning how to use texts and is full of advice for how to paraphrase, quote, etc. when you are using someone else's work.