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What is "Close Reading"?


  The secret to reading literature (and to coming up with a good ODC--online discussion contribution) is reading actively. That is, interrogate the text as you read: What does this mean? Why did the author put that there? What does this remind me of? What am I supposed to get from this? etc.

As you read, certain details will catch your eye. Maybe the "Sing to me" that begins the Odyssey, or the word "homecoming" that is repeated over and over in the proem. It could be a piece of imagery, an unusual or complex speech or episode, a parallel between two characters/events/things, or any other artistic choice of the author's that strikes you as noteworthy.

But don't stop at noticing. Ask yourself: why does that seem significant to me? Have I seen it, or something like it, somewhere before (in this work or another)? For example, the "Sing to me" might catch your eye because you remember that in the Iliad, the Muse sang through, not to, the poet. The insistence on "homecoming" catches your eye because it's repetitious. And so on.

Often, what you'll notice will be a repetition--a certain word, image or situation will appear several times, which will attract your attention. Ask yourself the questions outlined in the top paragraph above, and try to come up with a theory about why what you've noticed is important-what contribution it makes to the work. Does the image (e.g., "war" or "snake" or "home" or "fire") form part of a vocabulary of images; i.e., are there related images which, when you take them all into account, seem to be telling their own story? Is the item you've noticed symbolic-that is, is the author trying to say something about the actual entity mentioned, or is (s)he using it as a metaphor for something else? (Or both?)

Maybe the repetition is a structural device, accentuating a symmetry between/among two or more parts of a work; or maybe it's a framing device, drawing our attention to what happens in between the repetitions?

Is it, perhaps, an allusion to a previous work (for example, in the Aeneid when Aeneas washes up at Carthage and is greeted by a goddess in disguise, whom he hails as Diana/Artemis, thus evoking Odysseus' landings at Phaiakia and Ithaka both)? If so, where does the narrative conform to/diverge from the text to which it alludes, and what is the significance of these differences/similarities?

And so on. Remember, keep asking yourself: What does it (or might it) mean? Your provisional answers to these questions are what will make your ODC interesting.


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