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What is Close Reading?

by | Jan 5, 2022 | Uncategorized


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Before you read and respond to the Discussion prompt, read through my overview of “close reading” (posted below). It will prepare you for the Close Reading Write-Up assignment , and also help you to answer today’s Discussion prompt.
What is Close Reading?
Close reading is the thoughtful, critical analysis of a text. When we close read, we focus on significant details and patterns in order to develop a deep and precise understanding of the text’s meaning and form. Let’s break down what I mean by meaning and form. As readers, we need to understand what the text is about (in other words, we must grasp the content of the text). The “what” or the “content” is often referred to as the meaning or message of the literary text. But in addition to analyzing what a literary text is about, we can also discuss how the author uses language rhetorically—the “how” aspect of literature is often referred to as the form of a text. It might also be called the craft of a text. When we close read, we try to read on two levels at once: we try to understand both “the what” (what’s this story about? what happens? what messages circulate in this text?) and “the how” (how does the author use language to create a certain impression or emotional experience within the reader?). In literary writing, the “how” usually connects in a significant way to the “what.” The reason the “how” and the “what” connect in literature is because literary authors use the rhetorical features of language—such as metaphor, imagery, unique syntactical or grammatical constructions, pacing, tone, point of view, rhythm, etc.—in order to reinforce the work’s overall meaning. When you close read a work of literature, you are able to explain, in great detail, how the author’s creative use of language (i.e. his or her use of rhetorical devices and structural elements) contributes in significant ways to what the text means. In a nutshell, close reading is about recognizing that the rhetorical quality of language is not just a pretty “add-on”; it is absolutely central to grasping the meaning.
So to sum-up:
To conduct a “close reading” of a literary text, you must focus on:
observing how the author uses language, i.e. describing the text’s formal features (its structure, linguistic patterns, metaphors, tone, imagery, rhymes, etc.)
elucidating/explaining how the text’s formal features contribute in a significant way to the text’s content (i.e. what the text is about, its themes, messages, meanings, etc.)
In the “close reading” approach, you do not need to bring in historical or biographical information about the author. Instead, all of your energy should be focused on analyzing the specific words that appear in the text. Your first step, in a close reading, should be to identify interesting linguistic details and patterns. Sometimes you will be able to name these details/patterns using classic literary device terminology (for instance, you might identity a “metaphor,” “a simile,” or “juxtaposition”). However, there are other times when you will observe something interesting happening at the level of a text’s form, but you will not be able to think of a literary term to sum up what’s happening in the text. That is perfectly alright. In a close reading, it is much more important to thoughtfully and thoroughly describe what you see happening in the text’s language than it is to throw out a bunch of terminology. Even if you can think of a term to describe what you see, you should not just call it a “metaphor” and leave it at that, but instead, you should describe, in detail, how the metaphor functions (i.e. what is being compared to what, what makes that comparison surprising or notable, what associations might that comparison trigger in the mind of the reader, etc. etc.). After you have spent a significant amount of time describing the interesting linguistic detail or pattern, then, and only then, will you be in a position to comment on HOW it contributes to the text’s overall meaning.
Discussion Prompt
The story that we’re discussing this week, “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid, is difficult to understand if you ignore the rhetorical qualities of Kincaid’s language. The story is very short, but Kincaid has chosen each word with a tremendous amount of care. In order to come to a critical understanding of the piece, it is necessary to be extremely observant. Although close reading ultimately involves interpreting a text, the first step is always observation. As you read “Girl,” try to observe as many interesting details as you can about the way the author uses language. For instance, when I look at it, several interesting things about the language jump out at me: I realize that all the sentences sound like commands or directions; the author hasn’t made it clear who’s point of view is being represented (there are no character names); and I also notice that there is very fast-paced rhythm to all the sentences (it feels like they just keep coming without any pauses). Those are just a few examples of details about the language that I notice. For your Discussion response, pick one interesting thing about the language that you noticed (you can use one of the ones I just mentioned, but better yet, come up with something different). Describe how you think the language is working. What makes it unique or notable? Then, try to come up with an interpretation of WHY the author chose to use language in that way. How does it help Kincaid create a certain message or meaning? What do you think Kincaid is ultimately trying to express in this short story?
Bonus Discussion Prompt (worth 10 extra-credit points)
Is there an identifiable plot in “Girl”? If there is, indeed, a “plot,” it certainly doesn’t follow the traditional narrative structure that we read about in the textbook and discussed in relation to James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.” Nonetheless, are there subtle ways in which Kincaid uses language to demonstrate the passage of time? How much time passes in the story? Is there a moment of climax? How is conflict portrayed in this story and/or resolved? (You don’t necessarily need to answer all of these questions in your response; it’s fine to focus on one or two of them). In your response, please quote the story to support your interpretation.
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