Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

about close reading

I don't think this post by Alex Reid is on the right track:

Close reading, if you don't know, comes out the 30s and 40s with New Criticism as a kind of scientific method for literary analysis. It manages to survive the postmodern shift into theory and cultural studies, so that today we continue to advocate "close reading" without perhaps meaning the specific practice the New Critics called for. Btw, I think this is largely the case whether one is in a literature or composition classroom. Needless to say, while literary interpretation suggests a wide degree of openness in the meanings a reader might uncover in a text, close reading serves as a significant limitation on practices of reading and interpretation, and the compositions that might result.

Arguably, close reading is a practice predicated on a scarcity of texts. It's time consuming. Indeed, close reading might be said to follow upon a self-imposed, selective scarcity: the literary canon. Now, of course, we have an explosion of media. Furthermore, the discipline has departed from the selectivity of the canon. In short, there are more texts than ever to study. Yet we continue to cling to close reading because, I think, we have confused method with objective. This is, we have come to point where we might say that the objective of English Studies is to conduct close readings of texts. There appears to be a sense that intellectual work, at least in the humanities, can only function through close readings, that critical thinking requires close readings, and that other cultural-textual practices are anti-intellectual. Now, let me say that there's nothing "intrinsically" wrong with close reading. It is just simply a limited methodology that literally and explicitly closes reading and, indirectly, the composition practices that we insist must follow upon it.

Reid is not sure what he wants to replace close reading with, but knows he wants to “examine extant writing practices and approach the development of new compositional practices in an open, experimental way.”

Things start going wrong for this post at the outset, when Reid simply identifies close reading with the theories of the New Critics. The New Critics placed a particular kind of close reading at the center of their theories and their pedagogy, but they didn't invent it — what does he think Erasmus, or Augustine for that matter, was doing with the Psalms? — and it lived on — in the work of Jacques Derrida, for instance — long after the New Criticism became a byword for superannuated stodginess.

To repudiate the New Criticism is fine, but to repudiate close reading tout court is to abandon the one essential practice of all study of literature and writing: disciplined attentiveness. Close reading is a necessary — I would even say the necessary — skill in literary study (and in the reading component of composition classes) for one overwhelming reason: it teaches people that easy judgments made on the basis of superficial acquaintance with a text are worthless. What you (or I!) have to say about a text isn't worth hearing unless it is demonstrably based on thorough, attentive, careful reading — close reading.

Reid says that “Open composition, in the absence of close reading, is the situation of the text in an open field of networks and contexts.” This could mean almost anything, of course — he’s working at a level of nearly absolute abstraction — but I would argue that you can't “situate” anything meaningfully and usefully unless you have a detailed, even a minute, understanding of how it works. College students don't need much help in making broad connective generalizations — that’s their daily bread — but they do need to learn the hard work of testing those generalizations against what texts (or images) actually say and do. That's what the discipline of close reading is "predicated on" — not a scarcity of texts. Blake was right when he said that “To Generalize is to be an Idiot."


  • Given Reid's commentary, I wonder how, without some version of careful reading, a reader could discern the "network and context" within which a particular text resides and to which it contributes?

    My best reading of his comments is to suggest that he's looking for a term like "cumulative reading." The larger sense we get when we read a lot of something--like we are reading all of Robt. Frost, or most of his poems, this week.

    My less charitable sense is that he's looking for "shiny reading" in which, like squirrels or crows or dogs, our attentions get turned to the next shiny thing. I do a good deal of that sort of reading. It is neither networked, contextual, cumulative nor close.

  • David, I can't help thinking that Reid and people like hm are trying to find a way to do an end run around the slow, painstaking, incremental character of real knowledge — real knowledge of anything. It's an understandable desire for a teacher to have. Aren't we always wishing we could just upload to our students' brains the masses of textual and contextual knowledge they need but can't get in a single semester with us?

  • I'm in general agreement with both of you, Alan and David, on Reid's position. However, I do think that he and other critics of the type of close reading injudiciously derived from the New Criticism are right to ask us to question our assumptions about how we perform close reading. As I'm sure you've noticed in perusing formative New Critical close readings (e.g., R. A. Brower's), it's quite possible to perform bad "close" readings based on an unexamined hermeneutical model. Questioning this all-too-often-replicated model might actually lead us *back* to the models used by such close readers as Erasmus and Augustine.


  • Marie--I think you are right, that much close reading is also bad reading. Two things:

    1) Bad close reading is, what I call, hermetically sealed reading, where we pretend that nothing but the text exists (as if language doesn't carry with it culture/history/allusion/connotation). I have done this in front of large groups of students. I am ashamed.

    2) Which brings me to my second point, I think the New Critics have been sustained, in part, because their kinds of readings are something you CAN do in a 50 min. literature class--sort through a poem's craft elements, find a reading or two, then move on to the next one. It's a very important skill to teach. It can also be a very tidy way to teach. It also leads, sometimes, to the teacher as priest/shaman of the sacred poetic text. It can also be a lazy way to teach. I have also done this in front of students. I am, again, ashamed.

    I am not ashamed, though, of teaching someone the intricacies of lineation as a primary means by which poetry means and does its work. And that's the other side of all this for me as writer and teacher--the ability to teach how poetry or fiction affect readers, how they do their work. And that is as much word by word, character by character, sentence by sentence as it is anything else.


  • Michael Straight said...

    Whenever I see essays like this I feel like I've missed the first chapter of the book.

    How can anyone say "this is how we should read" (or even, less judgementally, "this is how we shall read today") without first saying "this is why we are reading"?

    Are we reading for personal enjoyment? To receive enlightenment or wisdom? To understand something we believe the author knows better than we do? To have a common repository of stories to use as illustrations when we discuss things like politics and religion? To discover data and form hypotheses about the author, the author's society, or our society? To weigh an author's testimony regarding an historical incident? To evaluate a philosophical argument? To resolve a dispute related to a text's moral or legal authority? To empathise with people whose experiences differ from ours? To put another book into a theoretical or historical framework we are constructing?

    All of these seem to me to be worthy of academic study, and they imply different ways of reading, different priorities in how closely you read, how much you care about the author's intent, how much you're watching the effect of the text on the reader, how free you are in bringing other things into the discussion of the text, etc.

    But as it is, essays like this seem like a biologist railing against microscopes and touting the merits of chromatography without ever saying what exactly he's studying.

    More succinct version: Doesn't it depend entirely on what you're reading and why you're reading it?

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