What is Close Reading?

I spent several years of graduate school practicing a technique of literary analysis that my professors called “close reading.” At first I assumed there was something marvelous in the technique, tracing the footsteps of Spitzer, Auerbach, Trilling, Barthes, and other giants of literary criticism. However, as I continued my work in literary analysis, reading increasingly widely outside of my discipline, I became skeptical of this technique and its supposed majesty. Here are some thoughts.

As far as I can tell, “close reading” actually means “careful reading.” The so-called “method” of doing this common thing called reading reduces to a free-association discussion of a textual passage. The purpose of close reading is purportedly to reveal inner secrets, not accessible to ordinary readers, but unleashed by the genius of the self-congratulating professor whose ability to mystify the obvious has provided an ample career opportunity in the Humanities. The text must be endlessly “explained,” its deep, secret meaning uncovered; the virtuoso of the analyst lies in noticing minutia, making clever connections, and bringing in the relevant set of literary discourse terms, social theory concepts, and impressive name-droppings to bolster the discussion.

“Close reading” serves the function of what was known 70 years ago as poetics, rhetoric, and stylistics. It is the inheritor of these traditions. The point is to get people to pay attention to the details of a text’s construction: punctuation; layout; structure; allusions and associations; repetitions or echoing; stylistic allusions or implications; word choice; discourse type; possible reasons for the choices made or sources for the text’s style and content.

In typical college close reading, the text is treated like a painting, and commented at substantial length by the close reader. This emerged from the reading of poetry, where such minute attention to a minutely crafted text is often warranted. It is also warranted in the case of painting, where the artist very carefully made choices about how to put together the piece (think of David’s Intervention of the Sabine women, which purportedly took him four years to complete). In these cases, the density of meaning is extreme, and long, lingering discussion over each of its components can be easily justified.

In the case of prose, however, this level of minute scrutiny is not usually useful, except as a technical exercise to train students to notice things they might otherwise be unconscious of. As far as serious analysis goes, however, I don’t see the point really. I think it’s often counterproductive, actually, because it encourages people to be irrational about the text, to pontificate about items that don’t really matter, to make claims that are irrelevant, and generally to just ramble on about arbitrary observations or unimportant ideas. If you doubt this point, read the work of literature professors in publications like the PMLA or Representations.

The main problem with this is that this kind of reading treats the text as an end in itself. Instead of seeking to make a claim or answer an important question, so-called close readings start with questions like: What does this text secretly say? What is the hidden, deeper meaning here? What trendy Humanities concepts can I try to connect to this text? Clearly, one could always pose this question to any text at any time, and do a “close reading.” You could pose this question to a DVD manual. This is not in itself an interesting operation, except as a technical exercise. Worse, it is likely to lead in wrong directions, since it begins with the questionable assumption that a given passage actually possesses some deep, secret meaning underneath its apparent meaning. Such an assumption is an invitation to free associate, like a Freudian approach to reading dreams. This is the opposite of a serious analytical approach, which begins with questions that matter, and then seeks to answer them.

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