Because interpreting a literary or scholarly text can often seem to students like a mysterious (even irrelevant) activity of literary critics who are overly fascinated by "symbols," discussing close reading as a constant everyday activity in which students themselves engage helps to demystify the process.
A good way to make students visible to themselves as already adept close readers is to ask them to describe a part of a conversation that they overheard, perhaps in the library or in the Commons. You may even want to stage a brief conversation between yourself and a colleague somewhere in the classroom (near the door, in the front of the room as he or she is leaving class and you are entering) just as students are getting settled at their desks but class has not started yet. Make the conversation cryptic—not meant to attract attention, but compelling enough to pique your students' interest. Do not explain what you are up to.
Whether you stage it or they draw from a different conversation, ask students to describe what they heard and what they saw—in general, what they noticed. Ask them to freewrite for five minutes or so, providing as many details as possible about body language and gestures, as well as words from the verbal exchange to support their understanding of what the conversation was about.
The advantage of staging the conversation for them is that everyone will be writing on the same event and this will make for an interesting conversation after they have finished their freewriting. They will, in effect, be talking about a shared text—adding to and deepening each other's "readings" of what happened. Some students may say that they saw or heard nothing; it is important for them to participate in the freewrite as well since, often, they have seen more than they thought initially.
The following is a discussion, aimed at students, of what it means to close read, followed by a set of guidelines for close-reading a passage in a literary text. You may want to use this as a handout/exercise after you have completed the previous exercise:
What is Close-Reading?
We close-read situations and people every moment of our lives; we have become so adept at observing tone of voice, word choice, body language, sentence structure, metaphor, etc. and coming to a reasoned interpretation of a situation or event that close-reading becomes an almost unconscious activity.
In interpreting fictional and non-fictional texts, close-reading should become a conscious and constant activity. You will need to close-read particular passages: to mine the passage for cues and clues that can lead you to a reasoned and well-supported analysis of the passage and of the relationship of the passage to the rest of the work. A close-reading is NEITHER PLOT SUMMARY NOR PARAPHRASE. Therefore, avoid simply repeating, rephrasing, summarizing, or vaguely generalizing about the passage. Instead look at how the language used to describe the event, character, scene, etc. creates and manipulates our understanding. One of the ways to begin a close-reading is to ask questions of the passage from the general to the specific. For example, why is this passage included in the novel/essay? How do the diction, sentence structure, tone, imagery, and metaphors shape your reading of this passage and contribute to your interpretation of the novel/essay as a whole?
Another approach to close-reading is to look not only at what is there but also at what is left out of the passage. Since the gaps can be just as significant as the passage itself it is crucial that you "read" these gaps and not try to fill them with your own assumptions and narratives.
Support your analyses with evidence from the text. So, again, make sure that you can point to particular details to support your readings.
General guidelines for doing close-readings:
- Briefly identify some of the major issues, conflicts, ideas, and ideologies reflected in the passage.
- Identify the context in which the passage appears and analyze its significance. In other words, where exactly does the passage appear in the piece (in the beginning, after an important scene, at the end, etc.) and why is its placement important? Also, who is doing the speaking in the passage (or about whom is the passage) and why is that significant?
- Analyze the implications of the language in the passage. Without worrying about authorial intention, ask yourself why the writer might have chosen those particular words or that style in that particular excerpt. Explore the subtler connotations of the words, allusions, expressions used. What kinds of metaphors and other figures of speech does the passage employ? Is that passage similar to or different from others, if so, how? How does the style and words choice tie into larger issues in the novel, story, or essay? This is a very key step in close-reading.
- Draw some comparisons and conclusions about the passage in terms of its relevance to the rest of the piece: how is it specifically related to other parts? What does it reveal about a character or an issue that you see earlier or later in the piece? Offer a brief example. Why is that particular passage (as compared to others) important?
- Finally, link this passage to another work you have read in the course.