Back to School: Six Strategies for Effective Close Reading

August 19, 2014 | 2 5 min read


Hordes of English majors will be heading back to school shortly, where they will be asked to write essays based on detailed textual analysis. Even the most gripping argument, they will be told, lives or dies according to the strength of the close readings supporting it. And yet in recent years, the art of close reading has been besieged from all sides: from shortened attention spans, binge Netflix viewing, and ubiquitous smartphones. In response to these pressures, I offer six concrete strategies guaranteed to help students learn how to close read effectively.

1. Ask Questions

Close reading can seem like a mystifying process, but at its core is a willingness to ask probing questions about a given text. How does a particular passage work, and to what effect? Why does the passage merit particular attention?

Now dig deeper. Which details make the passage jump out? Do they reveal anything about a character? How do these details relate to other details, ideas or themes in the rest of the story? Is this passage talking about your mother? Why would the author be talking about your mother? Why would this monstrous novelist drag her into this?

Collect yourself. Considering a text coolly and objectively is paramount. What kind of language or diction (elevated? low?) does the passage use? Are there any metaphors, literary references or allegorical resonances? In other words, how is the author choosing to symbolically represent your mother, and what emotions does this representation evoke? If anger, explore why. Is it because the woman is a saint and deserves better? Or because it enrages you that some fancy-pants novelist would try to slander your mother so cravenly, obscuring the calumnious portrait behind a smokescreen of flowery prose and Spenserian allegory?

Breathe deeply. Close reading produces knowledge, and knowledge can be painful. Take solace that the novelist will never be able to slip any such filth past you again. Call your mother, tell her you love her and choose a less incendiary passage to analyze.

2. Be Literal

As you can see, close reading can get emotional, which is why for readers who tend to take things personally, I recommend a strictly literal approach to literary analysis.

To begin, move your head as close to the page as possible, so close that your nose is almost touching the paper. Let your eyes relax, focusing nowhere amid the sea of swimming typeface. Then slowly move your head farther away from the text, making sure to look through the page rather than focusing on it. After a few seconds, a 3D image should start to appear.

This image, known to literary occultists as an eidolon, could be a moated castle, or a lion, or a Spanish galleon, or in one famously puzzling case involving a passage by Fanny Burney, a USB cable. Whatever appears, contemplate the image deeply, then describe it in detail to a qualified academic. She will be able to tell you exactly what the picture means in terms of the given author’s thematic and stylistic tendencies.

3. Get Physical

Especially for those dim readers unable to turn text into 3D magic representations, I recommend adopting a more physical close reading strategy. Despite being generally thought of as a cerebral activity, close reading can be a contact sport that requires just as much athleticism as speed reading, beach reading or ice hockey.

Move your head as close to the page as possible, and follow the steps outlined in the “literal” approach above. Except now, if an image does not appear, smash your face with great vigor down into the book itself. Repeat as necessary until you begin to see stars. Before passing out, try to remember the size, number, and rotational direction of these stars. Take your findings to a qualified academic, who will both interpret the results and send you home with a copy of Magic Eye so that you can practice a less dangerous hermeneutical method.

Regardless of the results, budding scholars should not attempt this type of close reading more than once or twice a year. Only the most resilient intellectuals—Edmund “Contusion Head” Wilson comes to mind—are built to withstand its rigors.

4. Engage with Other Readers

There’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. While close reading is partly about bringing your own personal insights to the text, these insights can benefit greatly from the contributions of other readers. To that end, reserve a few hours each day to loiter around a park or public library. Try to find someone who is reading the same book you intend to close read, ideally one of those people who look up and to the side every so often to ponder something.

Gradually make your way closer, taking care not to spook him and disrupt his intellectual labors. Next, hover directly behind your co-reader. Study his face as he studies the text, and ask yourself how you would translate his expression into clear, exegetical prose. If his visage communicates only bovine incomprehension, move closer still and read his marginalia over his shoulder. Copy any insights, changing a word here or there for propriety’s sake.

Before he gets creeped out by your presence and alerts the authorities, lightly blow into his ear as thanks for his help and hurry home to write your paper, which will of course cite your reading companion as a source.

5. Adopt a Scientific Approach

Humanities and the sciences, pace C.P. Snow, should be two distinct cultures, but that is no reason we close readers can’t take some pointers from our friends across the divide. For a scientific approach, find an old edition of the book in question, preferably one that has been stored in a damp environment. These are more likely to contain booklice (Psocoptera), which feed on mold and fungi. Open the covers carefully so as not to startle the insects within. Capture several specimens, invaluable resources who eat, sleep, and breathe literature around the clock.

If the booklice can talk, wonderful, simply transcribe their analysis verbatim. If, like the majority of invertebrates, they cannot, store the creatures until they confide in you. And if they continue to resist, which is likely, separate them into different chambers and interrogate them individually, shining your most powerful reading lamp on them. Some booklice can be coaxed out of their reticence through the Socratic method, while other vermin respond to more of a “bad cop” approach. Threatening to drop them in a crisp new paperback if they don’t cooperate is particularly effective, as is making cryptic allusions to their mothers.

Try to remember that time is on your side. It could take generations of selective breeding to produce a louse who will trust you enough to reveal its wisdom, but oh, what wisdom!

6. Be Yourself

3D visions, concussions, strangers, and booklice infestations—while crucial—can only tell you so much about a text. Ultimately, the best close readings spring from your own impassioned, questing devotion to a work of literature, as well as from those insecurities, Oedipal complexes, and particular neuroses that make you so special. In short, if humanities thrives on eternal verities, then so does close reading: Be yourself and try to avoid lengthy plot summaries.

Image via NathanMac87/Flickr

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Matt at