Whether you are an incoming freshman in your first expository writing class, studying for the SAT, or simply a lover of literature, close reading a passage of text is one of the most essential skills a critical reader can master. Close reading requires us to read beyond the immediate or superficial meaning of the text by forcing us to interpret the choices an author makes within their craft.
Much in the same way we consume visual art for aesthetic pleasure—a pretty flower, a naked woman, a happy arrangement of color and shape—so too do we consume literature. We tend to hurriedly read for plot, quickly turning the pages to find out what happens next, all the while missing the subtle intricacies that influence both the text’s meaning and our own understanding of what’s on the page. If we approach a book the same way we approach a painting—beginning now to lean in and look closer—we can observe that within the text, there are fine brush strokes which make up the overall picture of the story. Close reading is a way to recognize the brush strokes of language, the symbols and their meanings, and the source of the reader’s information.
The first step of a larger analysis of a text is to make note of any patterns, contradictions, or moments of surprise. A reader should make an initial passing of a text by reading and reacting with a pencil in the margins. What are your overall impressions? Are there two elements of the passage that are harmonious? in contradiction?
If the first yummy layer of a text is your overall impression, the next layer of understanding can be found in an author’s word choice. When a reader approaches the words on a page, it is helpful to make note of how the word is defined, along with how it is working within the context of the passage.
A reader’s first task is to define the words in the passage, especially those which seem to be the linchpins of meaning. If you belong to a university, you almost certainly have access to the most beloved dictionary known to man—the Oxford English Dictionary—which webs the ways words are defined, have evolved over time, and relate to one another. Start here to define your noted words. You should also be vigilant about any puns or double meanings that appear in the passage, as they usually add to the depth of meaning. Some important questions to help guide you:
-Which words jump out at you? Why?
-How do these words relate to one another? Do you notice any relationships between their definitions?
-Any words that seem unfamiliar or out of place?
Once these words are defined, the reader should begin to ask why and how these definitions impact the interpretation of the text.
Point of View
In identifying where and how a reader is receiving information about the text, they can also identify a bias of point of view. That is, any description that is relayed by a speaker, a character, or a character’s senses is limited. Making note of the ways a reader receives information—whether from an omniscient speaker, a dialogue between two characters, or a sensual description from a first person perspective—will allow a critical reader to identify ways the information has been biased or limited by that source’s point of view:
-How does an excerpt or piece of dialogue make us understand characters differently? From where are we receiving the information?
-Are there colors, sounds, flavors, or feelings that appeal to the reader’s senses? Does this imagery have a pattern?
-Who is speaking? Listening? Does the source of information have a limited, partial, or bias point of view?
This aspect of your analysis works best when handled in the context of an entire work, or what is framing the identified pattern. If a reader takes note of patterns or images that repeat themselves throughout the whole book or composition, they can then begin to make conclusions about the overall purpose of of that pattern within the sample of the passage.
Some helpful questions that may aid in isolating an emblematic image:
-Do you recognize this image from elsewhere in the work? Where? What is the connection?
-How might this fit into the context of the book as a whole?
-Could this function as a larger symbol for the entire book?
The second step in interrogating pattern is to look at the sentence and paragraph makeup. This is to identify shifts in tone and style which could contribute to a more intricate understanding of the text:
-What does the sentence sound like? Is there a rhythm? Is it long and drawn out, or short with many stops?
-How does the punctuation affect the way the sentence is read. Is there anything unusual you notice?
-Do you notice any words, images, or styles of writing being repeated? How does this influence the overall meaning?
Metaphor and Symbol
Finally, my favorite form of cross-examination: symbol is perhaps the most powerful way an author can communicate and control meaning. If there are any comparisons being made within the passage through the use of metaphor or simile, the reader should flag them. What kinds of symbols are used as representation, and why? Some other important questions to note when gathering evidence around symbol:
-Is there one larger metaphor that blankets the passage? If not, how many different metaphors occur and how might their multiplicity work together?
-How might objects in the passage represent something else? –sometimes, objects appear that are rooted in historical or cultural significance, so it is important to make note of objects that appear to be functioning outside of themselves, and research their potential importance.
-Could these metaphors be subsets of a larger allegorical meaning beyond the literal level?
Once a reader has sufficiently questioned a text at each of these layers, the annotations and their answers should lead to a larger, more complicated understanding of the work. This is where true analysis and argument can happen!
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