Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I will preface this by saying that I've never done any research on this topic, so I might be repeating the most mundane conclusions in the world. They're new to me, though, so I thought I'd share.

After a conversation with a colleague about close reading and how to teach it to first-year university students, I tried to remember how I learned to close read. At this point, the practice is so ingrained in me that it is largely unconscious. Obviously I picked it up somewhere, but I couldn't nail it down to a particular assignment, a particular class, or even a particular level of school (I can remember, however, discovering New Historicism--or my very basic imitation of it--as a result of a high school essay. I didn't know it was called that then, nor was I encouraged to engage in its practices, but that's a story for another day). I'm fairly certain I learned the term "close reading" in university, but I could already perform a basic close reading when I entered university.

I remembered two books this evening that seem to me to offer a starting point (or at least a pretty significant nudge along the path) for my life as a practitioner of close reading. I can't remember the title of either book, but I do know that they were both mystery novels. One was a kind of traditional whodunit and the other was a graphic novel (I recall my mother hated it for that fact alone) and involved a "haunted" house (the resolution of the mystery proved it to be a perfectly normal house with the hauntings contrived by a conman to deprive a family of its millions; the gothic's anxieties about property and its rightful transmission surface again!). Both explicitly modeled the practice of close reading a text in order to uncover information that would otherwise be hidden, with the graphic novel going so far as to have an "answer key" in the back that contained examples of the kind of information hidden in its words and pictures the alert reader would spot and use to solve the mystery before the book presented the solution. The more traditional novel relied on wordplay to disguise clues to the murderer's identity in otherwise innocuous-seeming sentences (a character helpfully explained all the wordplay in the denouement). For whatever reason, I found this strategy infinitely less irritating than Dan Brown's use of basically this same device in The Da Vinci Code.

Anyway, those mystery stories seemed particularly suited to demonstrating the practice of close reading to a novice reader. Obviously what they were doing was simplistic and didn't necessarily offer a way to immediately translate the skills they flaunted to other texts, but they made me aware that techniques like the ones on display existed. Without that kind of exposure I don't know that I could have taken to literary analysis. I wonder: is there something inherent to mystery stories that relates to close reading that makes them so effective at demonstrating this skill? I guess that would explain the interest (obsession might be a better word) that literary theorists have with Poe--his mystery stories somehow model practices that they want to encourage readers to make part of their repertoires, so they highlight what Poe is doing and how's he doing it.

Of course, the ways these skills were being modeled for me were not without their ideological, social, and political purposes, I'm sure (just like early teen slasher films usually served--covertly--as a warning about premarital sex). That, once again, is a topic for another day, though. For now, I'm going to try and remember the name of that graphic novel. I really liked it, and I never did manage to figure everything out without the "answer key." Could I do it now?

1 comment:

  1. I have to say that the whole "close reading is all about morality, blah blah blah" seems like a load of crap to me. Well, then again, that's actually a characterization of New Criticism - but every time close reading comes up, it's only 2 seconds before someone says something about it being a New Critical approach. And I think you'd be hard-pressed to find even a small majority of close readings these days that point in that direction. We're waaaaaaaaaaay too postmodern for the meta-narrative of moral salvation . . . Bah!