Once you have selected a passage, read it through slowly and thoughtfully as many times as necessary, making notes and asking questions. It is best to study it without the distractions of music, the web, a cell-phone, or conversation. Also, it’s best to set it aside between readings while posing questions to yourself to think about. Remember that close reading is a special kind of reading. It does not merely engage you closely with a text, but it is also a practice that promotes your mental harmony through patient reflection. In addition, it is quite a free method, encouraging creativity.
In close reading it is important to take every word as indispensable to the meaning. No matter how verbose, obscure, or difficult the style seems to you to be, the authors you will read in this course are among the most careful, precise, and insightful thinkers who ever lived. None of them wastes even one single word. Consider each word in terms of the whole reading, but also look closely and the rhetoric, architecture, and argument in your passage.
Consider how the words work with one another, how the ideas work with one another, and how the ideas and the words work or do not work with one another. Try to understand what is said, what is not said, and what is implied. Seek out conflicts as well as harmonies in the author’s presentation. Look for readings of the text that are contrary to your first impressions or to conventional understandings—and to my exposition of the text, for that matter.
In this paper, plunge straight into your analysis rather write an introduction to the author or the author’s work. You are welcome to bring in material from the author’s historical situation or life when and where such information helps you do close reading of the text. But the emphasis should be on understanding the author’s arguments in constructive terms. If you wish to criticize the author’s ideas, please do this only after writing as fair and good an exposition of his ideas as you can. In general at this stage of your acquaintance with these ideas, you are best served by confining arguments against the author’s positions ought to be confined to a brief section at the end of the paper.
One useful approach to close reading is that it is, in part, like disassembling a mechanism. You separate each piece, and then you lay them out as an image of the drive-train and functions of the mechanism. Another way to think of close reading is that it is, in part, a technique for studying the means of communication and persuasion that the author uses, taking the reader in one direction and then in another in order to complete the argument and also to induce confidence and conviction. Also, you can rely somewhat on your own experiences to help you in understanding the author’s reasoning—but the principal task in these papers is to understand the force of the authors’ own arguments in their own terms.
No matter what approach you take, these are some of the building-blocks of a close reading:
Observe and note words or phrases that the author repeats and emphasizes.
Try to pinpoint the evidence, assumptions, or stipulations, if any, from which the author starts examining the issue.
Lay out the sequence of inferences the author uses in developing the idea.
If anything is unclear to you, inquire into whether the author avoids or obscures any crucial point.
Look closely at the author’s words and syntax, noting whether and how the words work with the ideas, unusual definitions of terms, and the structure of the passage.
Identify metaphors and similes and their role in the argument.
Look for arrangements of words by which the author clarifies the relationships of ideas and/or stirs the reader’s feelings.
Bring to your awareness any of the associations that the text gives rise to in your mind, any fears or anxieties the text provokes, feelings such as anger or hope; use these to deepen your responsive and critical reading.
Imagine any meanings or implication not expressly given or directly considered in the text but that we require in order to understand the text.
Be alert for tensions within the author’s own terms and concepts.
Think about what the author does with tensions and contradictions, with seemingly incompatible notions or unrealized goals.
Be on the look-out for contradictions at any level, either in the text or in your reading of it; these need not be “resolved,” as they can be fruitful and open up complexities in the author’s thinking and in the topic that you did not expect.
Focus on the results of the text rather than on any opinion as to the author’s intentions.
Explore with a tight focus and an open mind.