Twyla Tharp’s Concept of Reading “Archaeologically” & How to Do it

The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp is a brilliant book that helps us all be that little bit more creative.

The book promises that “all it takes to make creativity a part of your life is the willingness to make it a habit”, and after a quick flick through The Creative Habit, it’s difficult to doubt this. I’ve read it several times now, each time annotating and taking more notes than before.

In this post I’d like to write about Tharp’s idea of reading “archaeologically”, or backwards in time. As readers, it’s something that many of us do automatically. So often I find myself reading a recent novel and then researching the texts that inspired it or led to its creation. This, according to Tharp, is archaeological reading.

Tharp will start with a contemporary book, move on to a text that predates that book, and so on until she’s reading the most ancient texts and the most primitive ideas. An example is The Birth of Tragedy > Carl Kerenyi’s study of Dionysos > Euripides > The Baccae > Historical sources.


How to read archaeologically, according to Twyla Tharp:


1. Take an author or a subject and start with the most recent book

2. Work your way back to progressively older books

If it’s a novelist’s body of work, you’ll learn more about the author’s recurring themes, philosophy and style, but you’ll also see it from an entirely different point of view. If it’s a particular subject, go back to the writer’s original sources. Not only will the distance you’ve travelled with the author intrigue you, but you will also get to grips with the original idea in its ancient and most unadulterated form.


3. Also”read fat”

Try not to simply read one novel, but also add related texts surrounding the novel to your to-read list. This may include books by the writer’s contemporaries, commentaries on the novel, a biography of the writer, or the writer’s letters. It’s a compulsive way to read, yes, but you’ll get so much more out of every book.

This is the opposite of a chronological approach (for instance, starting with Dostoevsky’s earliest works and ploughing through to his last writings).

The chronological process has the benefit of the reader growing up with the author, as it were, while “archaeological” reading has a much more detective-like feel about it.

Tharp states that the archaeological method allows her to read “transactionally”, scribbling all over the book (debatable) to make the text feel like her own. As a result of her reading dig, she can form developed opinions and conclusions and thoroughly get to know an author and his or her work. This is remarkably similar to my natural style of reading, although I could often deal with researching sources and related materials more.

What do you think about this approach? 

Do you do it already, or do you prefer to read chronologically? Have you read The Creative Habit to get your own creativity going?

Twyla Tharp, advocate of reading archaeologically. Image from

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