What is “Close Reading”? (and why you should do it even when you’re not in school)

You might have some vague (or all-too-painfully fresh) memory of your English teacher telling you to write a “close reading” paper. She may have said it with some gravity to her voice, or a serious expression. Maybe this “close reading” essay was worth a high percentage of your final grade, so you knew it was important.

But perhaps you ran up against a tiny little problem: you didn’t quite know what a close reading paper was.

Is it a wishy-washy (cough, cough *bullshit*) interpretation? Research on the author or the history of the poem/book/whatever to explain its meaning? A well-written list of all the literary devices (like “metaphor”) that appear?

Close reading can involve bits of all of these things. But it sure can’t be reduced to one of them, or taken to its extreme.

Before I tell you what close reading actually is, let me give you some incentive to do it. Because, at this point, you might be asking, “Why the hell would I close read if it hasn’t been assigned by my sadistic English teacher?”

Think back to a time when you went wine tasting (or coffee tasting, chocolate tasting, olive oil tasting, etc.). I’d bet your memory of that experience has a lot more to it than the simple fact that you drank good wine. You might remember the tour of the vineyard, the rustic and inviting architecture and decor of the tasting room, or the entertaining personality of the sommelier. And then comes the tasting. You don’t just glug glug slurp down your four to five beverages and head off on your merry way. No, no. You sit patiently as the first vintage is explained and poured. You swirl the glass and inhale the aroma. You probably don’t know which adjectives you’re supposed to use exactly (Is it oaky/earthy/berry? Are there tannins?), but you get a strong impression of the scent. Only then do you sip. Slowly. You allow the wine to swirl around your mouth, and feel it slide down your throat. You try to hold on to everything about the experience. It doesn’t matter how well you “know” wines. You’re savoring this. At the end of the day, that’s what makes wine tasting such an enjoyable experience. Even a mediocre wine gains more appreciation when presented through the ritual of a professional tasting. Or, you may find new qualities to esteem in a wine that you’ve drunk before, simply because you paid more attention to it.

What I’m suggesting is that close reading is the equivalent of a tasting, but for literature. You shouldn’t just read a novel or poem to get it done, just like you shouldn’t drink wine to get drunk or eat food to get full. These activities bring joy when savored.

In fact, Dr. Fred B. Bryant and Dr. Joseph Veroff wrote a whole book on the positive psychology of savoring. I’ll give you the SparkNotes: savoring makes you a hell of a lot happier.

So, I’m not suggesting you close read because it will make you smarter (even though it will). I actually think that close reading will make you happier. By really paying attention to the words on the page you’ll appreciate what makes them beautiful, unique, clever, or insightful. You’ll have those electrifying “ah-ha!” moments where the words remind you of something else you’ve read or thought about. They might help you make sense of your own thoughts, or your own world.  They might make you laugh out loud, or sigh, or cringe, or raise your eyebrows, or fill your tear ducts.

What I’m saying is that close reading makes reading worthwhile. It makes you feel and gives you something memorable to say about what you’ve read.

So, how can you close read? It doesn’t matter if you’re reading a hard copy, using an E-reader, or listening to an audiobook. Jot down notes with a pen/pencil in the margin, on your device’s annotating feature, or in the note app on your phone.

You don’t need to write something on every page, or even every chapter. Instead, hone in on those sentences, paragraphs, verses, or stanzas where you have a strong reaction.

Write down your first impressions:

  • What is the first thing you notice about this passage?
  • What type of response does the passage elicit from you, intellectually or emotionally?

Ok, now that you’re aware of what the text did to you, now it’s time to think more about how it made you think/feel that way. The next step is to ask: What are the predominant technical features of this passage?

I think of these “technical features” in three major categories. Look them over and see what resonates with your impressions.

Diction (aka “Word Choice”), Tone, and Syntax (aka “Grammar”)

  • Do any words catch your attention? Why would the author choose that particular word instead of a synonym?
  • None of the words pique your interest? That’s ok. Let’s look for one word to think more about…
    • Do any of the words strike you as unusual? (Maybe it’s an old word or an invented word)
    • Do any of the words seem inconsistent with the rest of the text? (Maybe there’s a “fluffy” word when the rest are simple)
    • Are any of the words ambiguous? That is, does it have multiple meanings and could be understood in a few different ways? Which one do you think its means? Why do you think that?
    • Are any words repeated? Why would the author repeat this particular word instead of using a synonym?
  • How would you describe the sentence structure? Is it simple, complex, long, short, flowing, or choppy? Does it vary or remain constant?
  • How would you describe the pacing of the passage? Is it fast or slow? Does it speed up, slow down, or remain consistent?
  • What is the tone of the passage? How do the words and structure of the sentences create an impression of the mood?
  • What’s going on with the punctuation? Are there “;” “:” “!” “—” “…” that imply something the words don’t necessarily say?

Narration, Style, Character Development

  • Who is the narrator? Is this narration constant, or does it switch (for example, from first person to third person?) How would the passage be different if the narration was different?
  • What is the style of the narration? Is it direct/indirect, linear/circular, stream-of-conscious, poetic? How does this affect the story?
  • Are there different types of writing or multiple genres (prose, dialogue, poetry)? What effect does this way of writing have on the passage?
  • How are characters presented? Are they “dynamic” (meaning we know a lot about them) or “flat” (meaning we know little about them)? How many characters are there? How much narrative space does each character get and how does this space contribute to their development?
  • Does the passage reveal anything new or unexpected about any of the characters? Why do these details matter?
  • Even if you don’t personally “connect” with a character, how does the text try to make the character interesting or important? How does the narrator want you to feel about the character? Do you feel it? If not, why? Is this a failing on your part, or the authors?

Metaphor / Imagery / Symbolism

  • Do any characters, objects, names, landscapes, bodies, etc. act as a symbol? What does this symbol represent?
    • Are there religious, national, racial, gendered, or sexual connotations to these symbols?
    • Do these symbols correspond with the traditional understanding of them (ex. red rose symbolizes love), or do they diverge from custom? Why?
  • What metaphors (comparisons) or similes (comparisons using “like” or “as”) are used? Why are they used? If the metaphor or simile is ambiguous, really break down what it means.
  • Are the descriptions vivid? Consider the sensory experience of the passage: is the imagery visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste)? Why does the author choose to spend time describing these things?
  • What isn’t described? What do these absences tell us?

Now what? No, you don’t have to write a paper. Just read and jot down your thoughts responding to a handful of these prompts. Or, just think about one of these questions while you’re sitting in traffic or waiting for an appointment. It will be a lot more interesting than scanning through a social media feed.

Best case scenario: you realize why what you’re reading is a work of art. You’re inspired. Your thoughts are set in motion on a chain of ideas all your own. Bravo, you are really, truly thinking.

Worst case scenario: you realize that what you’re reading is poorly executed or jars with your taste. You discover it’s banal or short-sighted. But guess what? You have formed a far more intelligent critique than, “Well, I just didn’t like it.”

At the end of the day, this exercise cultivates your ability to concentrate on small details, ask questions, and come up with your own answers. Those skills aren’t just qualifications in the workforce. They’re the bedrock of civic responsibility in democratic society.

So go pick up something to read. And savor it.

Posted by

PhD Candidate in English at UCLA, Ironman athlete, outdoor enthusiast, and hammock extraordinaire with a guilty penchant for over-priced health foods.

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