Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Introduction to "Close Reading"

by Derrick Clements
Image courtesy The Atlantic, in a sweet article revealing that young people today read more than their parents.
Why make a blog called the "Close Reading Classroom?" One of the high school English students I teach, when I told them about this blog and that they would all be the principle authors, not only had that same question, but said flatly, "I refuse to participate in anything that encourages people to read."

That's the sort of thing that punctures the sails a bit in a teacher, but it's also so perfectly, brazenly straightforward, that I have to admire his commitment to principle. And it isn't entirely his fault. His knee-jerk reaction illustrates well the kind of feelings many students do have when faced with the prospect of reading something more complex than a stop sign or restaurant menu.

And here I am not only saying that we're going to read, but we're going to read closely. Yikes.

Much to that student's relief (I hope), "close reading" is a skill that applies to much more than just "reading" in the traditional sense. We "read" lots of non-written stuff, like films, YouTube videos, even things like social situations and emotional states. When people talk about "close reading," what they mean is the critical skill of referring to evidence in a given text to make claims about the text's meaning.

In other words, if you know how to close read, you know how to understand complex ideas, whether they are found in a book, a newspaper article, a blog post, a movie, a poem, or a conversation with a friend. If you know how to close read, you know how to think. If you know how to close read, you know how to listen.

What Close Reading Is (And Isn't)

People who talk about literature -- often people who love literature -- tend to focus most of their attention of a text to how the text makes them feel or what it makes them think about, or what they liked or didn't like.

This is good, even essential, in developing a love of reading and staying engaged personally in a text. But close reading involves doing something other than using a text as a jumping off point to talking about yourself or your experiences.

Close readers are faithful to the text. Their observations can be tied to specific passages, because they are not reading their own ideas into the text, they are reading the text for its ideas. When other readers speculate wildly or make it all about themselves, close readers say, "that's nice, but stick to the text!"

When close readers make observations, they point to specific page numbers, quote the passages, and then offer explanations using evidence from the text. These offerings are so valuable that literary scholars make an entire career out of this process.

That doesn't mean that close readers can't infer meaning. Au contraire! Close readers are the ones in the best position to find hidden meaning, because they are not straying away from the hard evidence that is in the text.

Close readers make claims but are always willing to modify those claims based on new evidence.

Close readers don't defend their analytical claims by saying, "I just feel this way, it's my response," they say "This is what I think the text is saying, and here is why."

Some naysayers, not my anti-literacy activist student but those with a different complaint altogether, may think close readers are crazy. When you're reading a novel about talking animals and a close reader makes the case that this is a story about the inevitable corruption of political ideals, these naysayers call foul.

"You're just making stuff up!" they accuse.

Close readers are often accused of making stuff up, just like Castle.

But this is the very opposite of what close readers do. If you aren't following along closely, it may sound to you like close readers are mumbling and jumbling their way to La La Literature Land. In actuality, close readers are totally grounded in the text itself, and here's the exciting part:

Close readers don't always agree.

Close readers love thoughtful disagreement, because it's what makes literature class fun. Close readers argue, respectfully, about meaning. And it never gets personal, it's always grounded in the text.

Close readers lean in to their texts and to other close readers' interpretations. They want to be proven wrong, if it helps them discover meaning in a text.

And that's what this blog is about. It's a place to practice close reading literature (of all formats), as well as a place to think and talk about the process of close reading. Most of the posts will be written by my students, but I will write sometimes as well.

Join the conversation! We hope you'll be reading us closely.


  1. It's interesting to hear others opinions, so I think it will be interesting to debate over things, such as the question; Do you think Hugo's thefts were wrong, or necessary.
    - Fang Terror

  2. You say that close reading is all about not saying what you feel? I have to respectfully disagree. I think that close reading is how you get better at identifying what you feel. In this article, you say that a close reader will tell others to stick to the text when discussing text. I feel like close readers will be the first to comment on their own emotions regarding the text, and them will back it up with logic. I think that the use of logic is what separates close readers for readers.
    - One Dumb Pilot-To-Be

    1. Personal feelings always inform our reading, and that's why the skill of close reading is essential. If the goal is understanding something other than what we already know, we won't get far sticking to our own personal responses. However, these responses CAN be useful in many ways, as I mention in the post. Emotional responses can drive a reader to examine a text more closely. But when it comes to understanding a text, yes, sticking to it is going to be more fruitful than referring to our own biased knowledge and experience.

  3. I don't understand this. To me, this post seems like something you needed to tell you students. It does not fit with the rest of the posts. Why did you put this up?