close reading

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Close reading has been described as "an intensive analysis of a text in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means” (Shanahan, 2012). (Spiderstock/Getty Images)

Definition

Close reading is a thoughtful, disciplined reading of a text. Also called close analysis and explication de texte.

Though close reading is commonly associated with New Criticism (a movement that dominated literary studies in the U.S. from the 1930s to the 1970s), the method is ancient. It was advocated by the Roman rhetorician Quintilian in his Institutio Oratoria (c. 95 AD).

Close reading remains a fundamental critical method practiced in diverse ways by a wide range of readers in different disciplines.

(As discussed below, close reading is a skill that's encouraged by the new Common Core State Standards Initiative in the U.S.) One form of close reading is rhetorical analysis.

See the observations below. Also see:


Observations

  • "'English studies' is founded on the notion of close reading, and while there was a period in the late 1970s and early 1980s when this idea was frequently disparaged, it is undoubtedly true that nothing of any interest can happen in this subject without close reading."
    (Peter Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, 2nd ed. Manchester University Press, 2002)
     
  • Francine Prose on Close Reading
    "We all begin as close readers. Even before we learn to read, the process of being read aloud to, and of listening, is one in which we are taking in one word after another, one phrase at a time, in which we are paying attention to whatever each word or phrase is transmitting. Word by word is how we learn to hear and then read, which seems only fitting, because it is how the books we are reading were written in the first place.

    "The more we read, the faster we can perform that magic trick of seeing how the letters have been combined into words that have meaning. The more we read, the more we comprehend, the more likely we are to discover new ways to read, each one tailored to the reason why we are reading a particular book."
    (Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. HarperCollins, 2006)
     
  • The New Criticism and Close Reading
    In its analyses, new criticism . . . focuses on phenomena such as multiple meaning, paradox, irony, word play, puns, or rhetorical figures, which--as the smallest distinguishable elements of a literary work--form interdependent links with the overall context. A central term often used synonymously with new criticism is close reading. It denotes the meticulous analysis of these elementary features, which mirror larger structures of a text."
    (Mario Klarer, An Introduction to Literary Studies, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2004)
     
  • The Aims of Close Reading
    - "[A] rhetorical text appears to hide--to draw attention away from--its constitutive strategies and tactics. Consequently, close readers have to employ some mechanism for piercing the veil that covers the text so as to see how it works. . . .

    "The principal object of close reading is to unpack the text. Close readers linger over words, verbal images, elements of style, sentences, argument patterns, and entire paragraphs and larger discursive units within the text to explore their significance on multiple levels."
    (James Jasinski, Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies. Sage, 2001)

    - "[I]n the traditional view, close reading does not aim to produce the meaning of the text, but rather to unearth all possible types of ambiguities and ironies."
    (Jan van Looy and Jan Baetens, "Introduction: Close Reading Electronic Literature." Close Reading New Media: Analyzing Electronic Literature. Leuven University Press, 2003)

    - "What, really, does a critical close reader do that the average person on the street does not do? I argue that the close-reading critic reveals meanings that are shared but not universally and also meanings that are known but not articulated. The benefit of revealing such meanings is to teach or enlighten those who hear or read the critique. . . .

    "The critic's job is to uncover these meanings in such a way that people have an 'aha!' moment in which they suddenly agree to the reading, the meanings the critic suggests suddenly come into focus. The standard of success for the close reader who is also a critic is therefore the enlightenment, insights, and agreement of those who hear or read what he or she has to say."
    (Barry Brummett, Techniques of Close Reading. Sage, 2010)
     
  • Close Reading and the Common Core
    "Chez Robinson, eighth-grade Language Arts teacher and part of the leadership team at Pomolita Middle School, says, 'It's a process; educators are still learning about it. . . .'

    "Close reading is one strategy being implemented for teaching students higher level thinking skills, focusing on depth rather than breadth.

    "'You take a piece of text, fiction or non-fiction, and you and your students examine it closely,' she says.

    "In the classroom, Robinson introduces the overall purpose of the reading assignment and then has students work independently and in partners and groups to share what they have learned. They circle words that are confusing or unknown, write out questions, use exclamation marks for ideas that surprise, underline key points. . . .

    "Robinson uses examples from Langston Hughes' work, especially rich in figurative language, and refers specifically to his poem, 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers.' Together, she and her students investigate each line, each stanza, piece by piece, leading to deeper levels of understanding. She plays an interview with him, assigns a five-paragraph essay on the Harlem Renaissance.

    "'It's not that this hasn't been done before,' she says, 'but Common Core is bringing a new focus to the strategies.'"
    (Karen Rifkin, "Common Core: New Ideas for Teaching--and for Learning." The Ukiah Daily Journal, May 10, 2014)
     
  • The Fallacy in Close Reading
    "There is a small but immitigable fallacy in the theory of close reading, . . . and it applies to political journalism as well as to the reading of poetry. The text doesn’t reveal its secrets just by being stared at. It reveals its secrets to those who already pretty much know what secrets they expect to find. Texts are always packed, by the reader’s prior knowledge and expectations, before they are unpacked. The teacher has already inserted into the hat the rabbit whose production in the classroom awes the undergraduates."
    (Louis Menand, "Out of Bethlehem." The New Yorker, August 24, 2015)
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Nordquist, Richard. "close reading." ThoughtCo, Dec. 21, 2016, thoughtco.com/what-is-close-reading-1689758. Nordquist, Richard. (2016, December 21). close reading. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-close-reading-1689758 Nordquist, Richard. "close reading." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-close-reading-1689758 (accessed November 18, 2017).