Leslie's Bookcase

celebrating and recommending unforgettable books

Intertextuality: why it won’t leave me alone

Books in a bookcase stand at attention, physically touching, yet unable to share their content with each other.

Or so it appears…

In Life Itself: A Memoir, Roger Ebert devotes a chapter to his soul-friend Bill Nack, who, among other accolades, is known for reciting literary passages from memory. Ebert says he always requested Nack recite the same passage: the closing words of The Great Gatsby.

Allow me an aside to remind you what Nack would recite to Ebert because who could ever tire of Fitzgerald’s closing?

“ Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning—-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Moving on…In the opening scenes of the new Gatsby movie (for better or worse, now entwined in my Gatsby experience, as Nick Carraway contemplates reading to become a “well-rounded man,” Joyce’s Ulysses plops down on his table. Admittedly, I am likely one of the very few to notice and remember this well-placed prop. Legend has it that Fitzgerald worshiped Joyce.

Finally, the final pages in TransAtlantic (which I reviewed here) also reference Ulysses:

“The driver asked for a tip. Throwaway, I thought, but before I could say anything he cursed and sped off.”

I can’t get into “Throwaway” here, but trust me, this is a clever throwback to Joyce’s masterpiece.

Noticing such interactions has become my habit after I was assigned “intertextuality” as a classroom discussion topic during a modern British literature course several years ago.

Intertextuality: it’s everywhere

Simply stated, intertextuality is the way in which texts interact with each other. Every book is written by someone who has, of course, read and appreciated other books. References to these books then make their way into other books, sometimes obviously, sometimes not so obviously. In a simple form, intertextuality is the mentioning of another book in its text, such as what a character is reading or what book sits on his coffee table.

In a more complicated form, intertextuality can be a text mimicking another, as Ulysses does with the Odyssey. Intertextuality can also exist as a text within a text, such as letters presented in book (Pride and Prejudice), or a story in a story (My favorite example of this is Atonement, which in this aforementioned class BLEW ME AWAY.) And sometimes readers pick up on something or are reminded of another text which wasn’t even the author’s intention. These are just some examples of ways in which books and our reading experiences do interact with each other.

Perhaps thanks to that class and assignment, noticing these connections has become one of my favorite parts of reading. Pleasantly surprised by the connections among these four books I have blogged about, I wanted to share my appreciation of intertextuality.

Feel free to share your own favorite examples.


  1. Leslie, my favorite intertextuality is the book The Hours by Michael Cunningham, who apparently worships Virginia Woolf.

  2. I loved The Hours! It would be interesting to re-read with this in mind.

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