Submitted by syntaxfactory on May 11, 2010 - 9:27pm
Kirt Wilson teaches a grad seminar in close reading that begins with the American New Critics. Barry Brummett has a recent textbook on Close Reading. Perhaps Close Reading is a point of useful intersection across the English/Speech divide.
From the ADE Bulletin (TOC to the left):
1. Close reading can be critical or appreciative and thus can include critical reading but also reading that is far from critical.
2. Critical thinking can include close reading but also other sorts of reading that are far from close; rather, it can involve the identification of broad, systemic, big-picture issues.
3. Critical thinking derives from Kant and the discipline of philosophy (which is why it cannot be “specific to” the study of literature).
4. The sort of close reading I am here advocating derives from the study of language (historically, philology) and rhetoric; it is focused on language rather than on ideas.
5. Treating close reading as a synonym for critical thinking makes it harder to make claims for our disciplinary contribution.
"There are all sorts of ways of achieving closeness in reading. Very different from Johnson’s mode is memorization—unfashionable these days but one way to become intimate with the language of the text. Helen Vendler remarks that musicians learn the pieces they are going to perform and that critics should not shy away from learning by heart the poems they are discussing, since this exercise gives a sense of how elements of the language fit together. A strategy modeled by Roland Barthes in S/Z is to oblige students to comment on every clause in a passage, identifying the codes at work in producing whatever meaning they take to be at play there and in the connections between elements of this passage and those elsewhere in the text. The virtue of such quasi-mechanical systematicity is to compel a different sort of attention. A related procedure is promoting close reading of Shakespeare, as Marjorie Garber has done, using George Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesy, a Renaissance rhetorical treatise, and requiring students to find examples of the tropes Puttenham describes. The goal is to estrange reading, to give it a different optic. Another artificial way of slowing down reading and producing effects of closeness is translation. This is how literature used to be taught, of course: the class collectively translated Vergil or Horace, line by line, learning along the way about rhetorical structures and figures and things such as mythological allusions. There would be little enthusiasm for bringing back this sort of class, but as a strategy for encouraging attention to the details of a text, it has its merits. Certainly working with translation, which is anathema in many foreign literature classes, is an excellent way to enforce slow and close reading, of texts in languages students are learning as well as texts in their native languages.
The difference between close reading and the way most people read the sort of texts I teach is that, whereas it is generally agreed that it is the big picture that matters, close reading emphasizes small details. The main idea or general shape of a book is likely to correspond to our preconceptions, but we cannot so easily predict the details. I ask my students to notice surprising or insistent details, because it is there that they are most likely to break free of their preconceptions of what should be in the text. The detail is, I would argue, the best safeguard against projection.
When we read, we tend to see what we expect to have been written—what we expect that author to write, what we expect an author like that to write, what we expect from that sort of book. Reading what we expect to find means finding what we already know; learning, on the other hand, means coming to know something we did not know before. Finding what we already know, projecting onto a text, is the opposite of learning. As a technique to interrupt projection, to make us see what we don’t already presume, close reading can equip us to be open to learning—to resist our presumptions, prejudices, and suppositions—to keep on learning.
...In the New Critical framework, the value of studying literature lay in literature’s intrinsic value, which justified the method of close reading. I suggest here the very opposite: it is the value of close reading that justifies the study of literature.