Close Reading

It’s not unusual during one’s academic career to be assigned a close reading of a passage from a novel, story, poem, or even a song. But what exactly does “close” mean? What distinguishes a close reading pedagogically from other types of reading?

To answer this question, let’s briefly consider what a close reading is not: musing on an idea for a couple of pages, comparing a passage of one author to what another author said (or might have said), or even critiquing the author’s idea from your own perspective. These are all important tasks, no doubt, but ones for later occasions.

Essentially, what a close reading aims is is isolating the nuts and bolts of the passage selected. In order to reconstruct what the author is saying, we must first look at how the author says what they say. It is important to note, however, that—while a close reading creates real opportunities to experiment and play with different interpretations of the text—a close reading is no excuse to merely list one’s observations about as they occur in real-time; it will not be untethered to a thesis. Instead, close-reading means going back and filing each the recognition of each new detail as another installment in a cumulative story about the text. The thesis of a close reading, therefore, must be capable of housing a claim that evolves based on details which meaningfully accrete.