Close Reading

by Mark Wallace

Writing on literature in an academic capacity, one of my favourite activities is close reading. This approach is typically associated with so-called New Criticism – as this was prominent in the 1940s and 50s, the name has become something of a misnomer, but it has stuck. It fell somewhat out of favour among academics as theory came to prominence. Close reading and theory are at opposite poles of the critical spectrum: the latter is about bringing a preconceived framework to bear on the text, while the former is about a preconceptionless attention to the text. Of course, in an ideal sense, “preconceptionless attention” is not possible; but, equally, applying a theory to a text is also impossible, for extra-theoretical preconceptions begin to intrude here too. Given this choice between impossibilities, I tend towards close reading because it is the singularities of a text that interest me: in one single text there is an infinity of possibilities for reflection and intellectual exploration. The paths branch off in a myriad of directions, with no end in sight, as opposed to theory, when the end is largely pre-ordained, and all bifurcating paths must be hurried past with hardly a curious glance. All of which is perhaps excessively metaphorical, but suffice to say that close reading allows for attention to details in all their idiosyncratic uniqueness. The paradigm of the close reader is perhaps Sherlock Holmes:

“From a drop of water,” said the writer, “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it. Before turning to those moral and mental aspects of the matter which present the greatest difficulties, let the enquirer begin by mastering more elementary problems. Let him, on meeting a fellow-mortal, learn at a glance to distinguish the history of the man, and the trade or profession to which he belongs. Puerile as such an exercise may seem, it sharpens the faculties of observation, and teaches one where to look and what to look for. By a man’s finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs—by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.” – A Study in Scarlet, Chapter 2.

Now, though Holmes’ approach is in theory totalizing and idealistic, finding all life in any manifestation thereof, in practice no mortal can attain such knowledge, so is obliged to cobble together what can be gleaned from specific details. The observation is always with Holmes for a specified practical purpose, not to build a theory of analysis, but a resolve a certain situation – to solve a crime, most typically. The particular object of Holmes’ observation and attention is his fellow-mortals, who are to him as an open book, one which he reads with exemplary closeness.

It is the character’s profession of consulting detective which allows him such scope to read and investigate his fellow-mortals. Alternatively, he could have read their written works to understand the workings of the individual consciousness, and its interaction with nature, society, etc. Fundamentally, the critic is working towards the Holmesian end of observing and understanding his fellow mortals, and, hopefully, doing it with some of the style, wit, and professional integrity of the great detective.

The continuing validity of method of close reading in these postmodern times has been recently argued by Rey Chow:

Deconstruction has provided one kind of answer: the text may be regarded as a material phenomenon that keeps doubling on itself, referring to itself, in a potentially endless series of reflexive moves that reveal language’s alterity (or perpetual self-alienation) to be its own purpose. In pursuing the text in this, what some term “regressive,” manner, deconstruction brings into the open a question that is implicitly foreclosed in New Criticism: what is meant by “close” in close reading? Is close reading simply a matter of reading repeatedly (as Richards’s phrase “several readings” suggests), or is it a matter of reading symptomatically, approximately, or seamlessly (without gaps)? Is close reading a quest for some ultimate oneness? Importantly, unlike for the New Critics, close textual reading for de Man, Derrida, and their followers is not a means of inferring a transcendent unity somewhere. Rather, it is an intimate engagement with the text that is, nonetheless, forever unmet by a definitively reciprocating or holding ground. However precise and penetrating, this close textual reading is now readily sliding off—and horizontally displaced onto other words in play, in the literal sense of allegory—“other speak”—ad infinitum.

– Rey Chow, “Close Reading and the Global University”, ACLA 2014-15 State of the Discipline Report

Chow considers close reading to be classically a search for “some ultimate oneness”. Perhaps it was, but there is no necessity for a details-based approach to include any such element. Chow makes a fairly conventional move, by rehabilitating close reading via deconstruction. In one sense this makes sense, for Derrida insisted that deconstruction was neither a method nor a school nor a doctrine of philosophy “or indeed anything outside of reading the text itself“. However, the constant deferral of meaning that deconstructionists identify and focus on is not the most important element of a close reading, for while in a larger sense meaning is always deferred to some extent or other, the purpose of close reading is not to identify the presence of this generalized slippage/ sliding off, which can be taken as given without having to be constantly re-emphasized, but to engage with the specificities of the individual text, for every text is somewhat original, and cannot help being so. Even Menard’s Quijote was original. Engaging with such individuality/ specificity/ originality, such value, may be ultimately necessary if the study of literature is itself to be of value. We thus engage by reading closely and, so far as is possible, without preconceptions.