The Process of Close Reading
What is close reading, and why do we do it? Close reading requires us to develop a kind of intimacy with how language works—to notice its patterns and variations, to chart its twists and turns, and to interpret its effects. Unlike casual reading (valuable in its own right), close reading allows us to determine not simply what a text says but how it says it, the how being one of the most crucial elements of careful literary analysis. Close reading, in short, means getting down and dirty with the details, and letting those details lead us (as they inevitably will) to the text's broader literary and historical import.
The steps outlined below are one way—but by no means the only way—to proceed from casual reading to close reading. [You will be asked to use a somewhat compressed version of this same process on the E316K Concept Test, which you will take at the beginning of the semester for three participation points toward your final grade (individual test grades will not be assigned) and at the end of the semester as part of your graded final.]
A. Basic Information: When preparing to close read a passage—whether a poem or an excerpt from a longer work—the first task is to make sure you understand its content at the most basic or concrete (one might even say “surface”) level. What situation or action does the passage describe? Is it possible to determine the setting or timeframe? Who is present? From whose point of view is the passage related? If the passage is an excerpt from a longer work, at what point in the work does this passage occur and how does it fit with the larger plot or narrative? For this step you should not try to identify any literary techniques or to offer any interpretations beyond the basic circumstances of the passage.
Note any details of the passage—words, phrases, lines, or other elements—that puzzled you as you attempted to answer the questions above. Was there anything in the text that made you wonder if your basic paraphrase was correct, or anything that you had to ignore to construct your paraphrase? Note: It is a good practice to ask yourself what unknowns or loose ends still remain (or have newly emerged) at the end of every step in the close reading process. Most readers encounter things that mystify or even frustrate them as they go along. This is usually a good sign—it means that you are indeed reading the text closely and carefully. As you continue the process, many of your unknowns will start to become clearer. Often you will find that they become the richest or most interesting things about the text.
This step focuses primarily on language. It is where you “get close” to the passage and discover how it works on an intimate level. Begin by reading the passage aloud (especially important for a poem). Write down anything you notice about the sound or about how the passage “feels” in your mouth. For example, do you hear any alliteration, rhyme, assonance, consonance, or anaphora? Does the feel of the language change at any point in the passage and, if so, how? Then reread the entire passage to yourself very slowly, pausing at the end of every line or sentence to look closely at the details of that sentence or line. List anything you observe. Do not try to analyze these details—just note them down.
Here are some things that you might look (and listen) for during step 2:
• Repetition: Do you recognize any repeated words, phrases, ideas, images, colors, or sounds? Can you identify any patterns of repetition? How about syntactic patterns (word order, sentence structure, punctuation)?
• Structure: Does the passage unfold in a straightforward way? Does it give us some of the information up front, and withhold the rest? Can you identify any important turning points in the passage? Do you notice any shifts in tone as the passage goes on? If a poem, are there places where the speaker seems to shift from one line of thought to another, or from one perspective to another?
• Figurative language: Does the passage use any analogies? Do you see examples of metaphor, simile, synecdoche, personification, or other figurative devices? List every example of figurative language you can find and try to identify what is being compared to what.
• Diction: Are there any specific word choices that stand out to you? In addition, does a particular kind of word predominate in the passage (e.g., lots of verbs, adjectives, long multisyllabic words, etc.). Can you identify any places where the feel of the diction shifts?
• Sound: If the passage is a poem, does the meter or rhythm follow an easily identifiable pattern? Is there a regular rhyme scheme? Would you describe the sound patterns of the poem as mostly following a conventional form (e.g., iambic pentameter) or as closer to “free” verse? Can you recognize a specific genre of poetry (e.g., sonnet, ode)?
• Ambiguity and difficulty: Are there words or phrases that might be interpreted in more than one way? Do you notice any odd or seemingly irrelevant details--for example, a strange choice of wording, a non sequitur, or anything else that strikes you as unexpected? Does your sense of the meaning change as you move through the passage or poem? Is there anything in the passage that just doesn’t make sense to you?
Here you begin to consider how the passage might relate to its immediate historical, social, biographical, or literary context(s). From the information you have been provided—or from information you have gleaned from research—list any aspects of the writer’s biography, larger literary objectives, or of the historical and social realities of his or her time that you think might be relevant to an interpretation of specific elements in this particular passage.
Select four or five of the observations you have made about the poem’s textual details in Step 2 and one or two of the observations you have made about its potentially relevant contexts in Step 3, and state in one or two sentences, for each of the details and contexts you have selected, what you think that detail or context adds to the effect or meaning(s) of Whitman’s poem. (For longer assignments you will select more details.)
You are finally ready to step back, add up the observations and analyses you have made in steps 1-4, and make a claim or thesis about the poem. Using what you have observed and analyzed in steps 1-4 as evidence to support your claims, write a short interpretation of the passage that conveys your understanding of its meaning and purpose and of how that meaning and purpose is communicated by its language. Strive to be clear and specific. (Note: how much you write at this stage will vary depending on your assignment.)