Among certain of us teachers of literature, “close reading” has developed a slightly unseemly odor these past few years. Like that steak that has been sitting in the refrigerator almost too long, it can no longer be approached without at least a little bit of suspicion and a great deal of care, especially if we do decide to go ahead and cook with it.
Why? What’s wrong with “close reading” (“explication de texte,” if you want to be snooty about it)? After all, it has been the mainstay of literary analysis for, oh, sixty-odd years now and has opened up the study of literature, allowing for marvelous new directions of inquiry.
Unfortunately, though, by the 1970s, it had become too much the rule. Even today, it is often called “the most important skill” for the study of literature and “the building block for larger analysis” (just to pick the first two things I found on a quick Google search). Many of us teaching now, in fact, were never presented anything but “close reading” in our classes—certainly, we were never encouraged to move on to “larger analysis.” Sure, we still had a few grumpy historicists about us, trying to keep the clock from passing WWII, but we ignored them, for the most part.
Because of its predominance, by 1980, as a tool “close reading” had come into a position where it was determining the outcome of analysis and limiting the scope of literary scholarship. If you limit the range of tools you are working with, you necessarily affect the outcome of your project, limiting it just as much. That frustrated many of us, leading us to follow the examples of people like Stephen Greenblatt into realms like New Historicism, where “close reading” has a more limited impact—becoming simply one of a number of different tools that can be used.
Thing is, in reaction to the dominance of one tool, we can easily forget that it still does have value. Let me give an example from a hobby of mine, photography:
When I first became seriously interested in taking pictures and developing them (in the 1980s), photography had already become quite sophisticated and automated. There were all sorts of ways of preparing for what would be the final print (and now, of course, there are many, many more). I had friends, however, who rejected many of these tools, believing that they reduced the “purity” of the result. Some would even file out the edges of their negative carriers so that a black border would surround their prints, showing that their framing was all in the camera—that no cropping had occurred in the darkroom.
Because of this, they limited themselves in more ways than, perhaps, they understood. They couldn’t really use rangefinder cameras, for example (it’s difficult to judge what the exact framing would be with a rangefinder, not to mention questions of parallax), and thus couldn’t take advantage of the lighter weight and smaller size of the rangefinder.
As a rangefinder aficionado (and as someone in love with darkroom work—where I did most of my framing through cropping), I thought they were silly. It didn’t matter where the composition occurred, in my view, only that it was reflected in the final print.
Still, that did not mean that my friends were wrong. Eventually, I learned what really was behind their decision: it forced them to work with the camera and the image itself, not simply with the image of the image that I was working with in the darkroom. In other words, their decision to limit themselves forced them to spend more time considering their subject at the time of the shoot—not a bad thing.
As time went on, I started to limit myself, too—though in other ways. I stopped using the light meters in the few cameras of mine that had them, turning to a hand-held one that gave more flexibility and could be used to turn reliance away from averaging. I also stopping focusing through the camera, but relying on knowledge of the focal plane available for each different aperture. This allowed me to place my central subject in different areas of the focal plane, not always keeping it at the center.
I did these things for my own pleasure, and so that I could learn more about the camera, myself, and even my subjects. And learn a lot I did.
But these things did not make me a better photographer. Still, I had to remind myself not to look down my nose at someone who hadn’t been so totally influenced by Ansel Adams as I. I had to remind myself to look at the result, not the method. If I started to say that the only good photographs possible were ones created the way I created mine, I would be limiting the field through tools, not through the aesthetics inherent in the outcome.
If photographers in general had been forced to work in as constricted a fashion as I do, photography would be much the worse. That doesn’t mean that what I like is bad, but that it is limiting. I can accept that limit (and I do), but I know I am not as likely to produce a great photograph as someone willing to learn a wider set of tools and work with them.
That, though, doesn’t mean that it is not worthwhile for a photographer to learn about depth of field through manipulation of the focal plane, or to come to an understanding of parallax through use of a rangefinder. It simply means that great photographs can be taken without this knowledge or skill.
The same can be said of “close reading.” It’s but a tool, and one that can be used for learning a great deal about literature. But it is not a necessary tool.
The last two decades have seen a break from dependence on “close reading,” but it has not been an easy break to make. Too many did (and many still do) consider it a necessary tool, and desired to keep limitations such as “the intentional fallacy” in place.
That I don’t find “close reading” necessary does not mean that I do not respect it at as tool—nor does it mean I don’t use it. Yesterday, I taught Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” (a poem most all of us use at one time or anther). We did a “close reading” of it, for it is a poem quite open to “close reading.” But the poem can’t be understood, any longer, simply through its language (even in the broadest sense) for it is a poem that uses cultural actualities that have changed a great deal since it was written.
If we did not look at 1940, 1962, and 2005, our “close reading” of the poem would have left us with a paltry sense of the poem.
That’s not the fault of “close reading,” though, any more than it is the fault of my rangefinder that my picture does not capture all that it could.