Close Reading

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A Close Reading Exercise


What does it mean to read a text closely and analyze it? Why do we do close reading in literary study?

The answers to these questions emerge more from the doing than the talking. Briefly, close reading is a basic tool for understanding, taking pleasure in, and communicating one’s interpretation of a literary work. The skills employed in close reading lend themselves to all kinds of cultural interpretation and investigation.

Close reading takes language as its subject because language can operate in different ways to convey meaning. Reading sensitively allows one to remain open to the many ways language works on the mind and heart.

When an assignment calls for close reading, it’s best to start by choosing a brief but promising passage and checking your assumptions about its content at the door. Close reading often reveals the fissures between what the speaker or narrator says and how she or he says it. You know from your own experience that life involves constant, often unconscious sifting of these nuances.

Here are some useful steps.

1. Choose a short passage that allows you to investigate the details closely. Here, for example, is the first paragraph of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Chapter 2.

In addition to what has already been said of Catherine Morland’s personal and mental endowments, when about to be launched into all the difficulties and dangers of a six weeks’ residence in Bath, it may be stated, for the reader’s more certain information, lest the following pages should otherwise fail of giving any idea of what her character is meant to be; that her heart was affectionate, her disposition cheerful and open, without conceit or affectation of any kind—her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing, and when in good looks, pretty—and her...
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