Reflections on Close Reading

for Laura Garofalo. With thanks to Ricky McAlister & Nathaniel Cochran

1. blah blah blah close reading will change your life you’ll get a real education you’ll think independently you’ll feel like the past is with you always you’ll be stronger and smarter and you’ll know god and morality better as well as the limits of science blah blah blah BLAH BLAH

The humanities are all but dead in our world. This all of us know, as they can never be dead enough. They’re a convenient scapegoat for calling others impractical and deflecting the words “greedy,” “asshole,” or “unimaginative tool,” words that normally stick to the guy saying we throw too much money as a society into the liberal arts. Just point at someone who majored in English and everyone can have a good laugh, as they can’t even get that job at McDonald’s nowadays. Apparently the ultimate sign of our decadence isn’t the money we waste on phones or cars, but time spent reading poetry.

It’s easy to see that something else exists beyond making money, getting the trains to run on time, advancing technology. The problem is creating a positive case for the humanities without talking about that “something else” as the sum total of the universe or human freedom or divine perfection. I know what I like about close reading; Nathaniel, via Nietzsche, really hits the mark for me. His brief comment talks about the back and forth of wondering why any words were written at all. For me, this translates into taking books one line at a time, stopping, talking, talking through each one.

Still, Ricky didn’t hesitate to mention books that mattered to him centering on important themes, whether they portray a world completely throwing books away, or consider what freedom and dignity mean in a world which relishes making people slaves. No one would read if they didn’t get anything out of it, and focusing too much on close reading itself forgets that we tend to be selective about what we read.

I guess what I’m learning through close reading is how to convey the import of things, how to take seriously things I wouldn’t normally think through and communicate them to others. No wonder so much moralizing accompanies careful readers. Even if the humanities weren’t under assault, it’s impossible not to treat a discovery in a book as a revelation. At the very least, you’re stumbling upon someone’s concern; simply by being a discovery it becomes central to you. Shouldn’t it be shared, proclaimed to the world?

I think so, but I also think that points less to the humanities as transformative and more to them as necessary. They are foundational. They’re about how and that we talk to each other. To take one not-so-trivial example: if we can’t engage the past seriously, we will more than likely use some romantic notion of it or rejection of it to hurt others. While the humanities can certainly be about the trivial and encourage a lack of productivity, they have more to do with this “freedom” and “morality” thing than most people today assume. Typically, the ones telling us that reading or formal schooling are wastes of time have a very specific and very mindless agenda.

2. I need to say something about close reading itself. I was asked. This was not prompted by books with titles like “How to Read like a Professor.” No, I’ve been making my notes public for 7-8 years now as I read. Some people actually care and are wondering how this works or doesn’t work.

For myself, it has taken years to learn how to read, and there is this strike against the state of the humanities nowadays. When I miss a detail, it feels like I don’t know how to read at all. Same goes for writing badly. How could I possibly write a bad sentence, given that I work on my writing all the time?

The humanities, as they stand, are far too small, far too exclusive. This is not to excuse my failures, which are legion and well documented in a number of incomprehensible posts on this blog. It is to say that the whole point of the humanities is that we should be working together to make sure more opinions are more thoughtfully expressed, read, and promoted. Instead, the whole culture has become a snobfest, a way for some professors to play pundit and shirk the real duty of educating the body politic. To do their real duty would involve making mistakes publicly and taking the risks that accompany having an important part of the truth and believing one’s profession worthwhile. The ultimate risk seems to be admitting one is wrong and someone else is better. It’s very rare I see people graciously recommend others.

With that in mind, I propose two simple rules for those who want to close read. They are:

  1. “Why is this being said?”
  2. It is far more important and valuable to come up with a serious question or insight about a part of a work than have the whole figured out.

All of you will recognize that 1 is the sum total of close reading. Regarding literature, one posits an internal speaker and internal audience for a given work in order to treat it as a self-contained world. In other words: all the fancy attempts at using a method to read are about finding intention and relevance from another point of view. We are working to be informed, and trying not imposing our assumptions.

2 is much more controversial. Leo Strauss has been an invaluable guide for me, showing me how to think carefully about texts. Strauss is always attentive to the whole, and I always work to get an interpretation that takes it seriously. And I do think good readers will show some respect for the whole no matter what.

But one of the reasons why the humanities is in crisis is that its exclusivity demands too much from thoughtful, serious people who have better things to do than close read thousand page books all the time. A lot of people who don’t really know as much as they should read too much, too fast. Or they close read to absurd degrees, not bothering to ask whether they have good questions or not, or whether one insight may have more weight than another.

I want more people to dare to be wrong. We’ve got too many right answers: everyone knows everything. The best way to get people to be wrong in the right way is to get them talking about what speaks to them, to let themselves find a path where they can discover why the whole text ultimately matters.

I’m putting my money where my mouth is. You’ll notice that my approach to poems is more personal than it has been previously, focusing on the dramatic action of a given poem and considering various ways in which a thing could be said. I want stanzas and lines to sing; I want people to feel the relevance of certain questions or ideas. My gamble is that the twists and turns those questions and ideas take later in the poem are twists and turns others will want to follow. It’s a gamble I know is worth taking. For a while, I thought I was talking to myself.

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