Close Reading or Close-Mindedness?

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In my personal essay concerning my good friend "Literature and I," I detailed how I had a love-hate relationship with literature. I love the places that literature delivers me to, and the state of mind that I employ whenever I read. But I stated that I severely disliked how, as Karyssa put it, literature is surgically invaded and ripped apart. Every single detail is analyzed. So, I was interested in reading this chapter in Roberts. I wanted to see if every preconceived notion I'd ever had about explication and close readings would be squashed, and I wished to develop an open mind about this aspect of English major-dom.

I began this reading with an open mind only to find that the main characteristic of close reading is, indeed, close-mindedness. I was initially tipped off when Roberts stated that close-readings are primarily conducted about poems (53). Even though I believe it would be tedious to explicate entire stories, it is entirely too specific to say that an analytical process is confined to a specific genre. Additionally, while reading the essay about Mark Twain's "Luck," I noticed that the author of the essay analyses the number of words in a sentence, "eighty-one words long," to be exact (58). I don't mean to be a Debbie Downer, but I'd just like to ask "Who cares?"

So, I believe that close reading, rather than offering an expanded vision of a work that broadens one's literary horizons, instead forces a reader to be close-minded. A certain level of analysis is warranted and can sometimes help a reader to achieve further insight. That does not, however, mean that the reader has to pick apart a work until it is mangled.

8 Comments

Jessie Krehlik said:

I get what you're saying here Jess. And I agree with you to an extent. Sometimes, I just want to read a book for what it is--something for me to enjoy. I read The Time Traveler's Wife a few years back, and I read it for what it was: a sci-fi love story. Then, before the movie came out, I decided to read it again to refresh my memory of all its greatness. I wasn't disappointed; however, I also took a more analytical approach while reading it the second time around. I looked at the deeper meanings, such as Free-will and destiny and all that jazz, but I still read it as a love story too. So, I guess I can see the value in both. Sometimes, I really HATE analyzing stories. I can't help but think, why can't it just be a story, why do we need all this extra symbology to go along with it? But then I realize that these symbols and metaphors help to make the stories really great. Sure, I'll agree that close-reading will take some away from the stories, but it'll give a lot back in return. In a perfect world, I'd say just read the book twice...once as it is, and once to find the hidden details, but we're not in a perfect world, we're in college and we have deadlines, so we have to make due, even if it does mean we have to suffer through the close reading of another not-so-fascinating book...

Jessica Orlowski said:

Thanks for your comment, Jess. I also agree with what you're saying; we can get a lot out of further analyzation. But I think I'm referring to the OVER-analyzed stories... Melville,Catcher in the Rye, etc. These stories are pretty much beaten to death, don't you think?

Jessica, thanks for a candid and thoughtful post. The length of a sentence, by itself, doesn't mean very much, but the measurement is part of an argument -- the relative length of the sentences tells us something about the kind of voice we are hearing. Nobody is going to quiz anybody on sentence lengths, but structure is one of many ways to find meaning in literature. It may not be your preferred method, but it may be just the thing to capture the interest of the numerically minded as they navigate their way through the world of literature.

In this class, I'm not trying to push any specific analysis or interpretation. I think that happens all too often in high school. I remember in high school, one of my classmates, her pen hovering over her notebook, would always interrupt the teacher's guiding questions and say something like, "Just tell us what we're supposed to think."

By asking you to develop the skill (and the patience) to analyze works of literature, I am asking you to experiment with methods that demonstrate your ability to engage with literary works that you might not choose to read for pleasure, but that have significant influence in the world of English.

As the semester progresses, I hope you'll keep an eye out for an intellectual puzzle that analysis helped you to solve, so that you ended up with a newer understanding of a work that you might have been unable to appreciate before, or a new way of looking at a work you already thought you fully understood.

JessicaOrlowski Author Profile Page said:

Dr. Jerz,

Thank you for responding. During my English classes in high school, I was guilty of identifying with the "just tell us what to think" crowd. It was always difficult for me to pick out the details that my fellow classmates saw. I must say, though, Trifles was probably the best thing I've ever read. I don't know why, but I was easily able to analyze this play. Perhaps this will open my eyes, then.

PS) As I was annotating Trifles, I was becoming somewhat flustered; Glaspell spelled so many things out that I could have found on my own. Maybe I AM an emerging literary analyzer after all...

I think close reading could be close-mindedness, if the reader lets it be so. I totally agree about not wanting to pick everything apart, but now that I read your entry, my perspective has somewhat changed. I, as a reader, can interpret every single word in a story and determine a reason for its purpose. If I think of all the possibilities I can, that's not really being close-minded. That would be more open-minded, actually, because I'd be open to every answer.

JessicaOrlowski Author Profile Page said:

Actually, now that you mention it, I'm starting to realize that I was being very close-minded in regards to this subject. You're right- if we think of all the possibilities we can, that is being close-minded. I'm still sticking to my guns, though... If you limit yourself to ONE correct answer, that is bad.

Very true. I remember one of my high school English teachers telling my class that a particular line in a poem I now forget had one interpretation, and that was the only correct interpretation. I viewed the line quite differently from him, but if I were to put my insight on the test, he would have marked it wrong because he believed only his view was correct. Luckily I had other, more open-minded teachers since then, but I thought it was absolutely ridiculous that we had to be so structured and uniform while analyzing a poem. I felt like I learned very little that year. Perhaps that's because my teacher hadn't considered all the other possibilities.

JessicaOrlowski Author Profile Page said:

Do me a favor: If I ever become that kind of teacher, PLEASE snap me OUT OF IT!!!! It scares me that so many kids want you to hand the answer to them on a silver platter, but that takes away so much freedom! I had a teacher like that, too. (A John-Wright- type teacher lol) It's kind of interesting- some of us beg the teacher to tell us exactly what the poem means, but others want the teacher to stay out of it. I'm the opposite. I need an initial meaning kind of put out there by the teacher, but after that I like to be free to explore.

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