Close Reading

An English teacher’s heart will go pitter-pat whenever he or she sees close engagement with the language of the text.

That means reading every word: it’s not enough to have a vague sense of the plot. Maybe that sounds obvious, but few people pay serious attention to the words that make up every work of literature. Remember, English papers aren’t about the real world; they’re about representations of the world in language. Words are all we have to work with, and you have to pay attention to them.

The problem’s most acute in poetry. Here, for instance, is the opening of Gray’s famous “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard”:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

The surface-level meaning is something like this: “At evening, when the curfew bell rings, the cows and the plowman go home and leave me in the dark.” Many students read passages like this, “decode” them into something they can understand, and then ask, “Why didn’t he just say that?”

That’s usually a dismissive rhetorical question, with the implication, “Why is that nasty old author making my life difficult when he could have said it simply?” But in fact “Why didn’t he just say that?” can be a great question, and you should learn to take it seriously. Why did he say it in the denser way? Answer that, and you’re on your way to a good thesis. (Hint: with good writers, the answer is almost never “Because he had to rhyme” or “Because he couldn’t do it any better.”)–Jack LynchClose Reading (Getting an A on an English Paper)

It’s really little wonder that college students want to talk about “the real world,” since their high school English teachers often rewarded them for being able to apply a literary work to their own life. Thus, when reading a poem that invokes fear, students were encouraged to talk about times that they felt afraid. This is fine if it’s presented as a way to get into the text, or if it is part of an informal response journal. But students who can’t get beyond their vague impressions (perhaps because they didn’t actually do the readings) can distract and stifle a classroom discussion.

Few things give me “that sinking feeling” more sharply than when, during a rickety class discussion, where a few students who haven’t done the readings are still trying to fake me out by asking clarifying questions, and the students who have done the reading aren’t ready to take a stand, someone makes a reference to a movie or TV show they just watched, and then hands suddenly shoot up all over the room, and I ask, “Can we relate Desperate Houswives to Arthur Miller?” and the hands go back down.