What Does it Mean to Read Something Closely? A Conversation with Angelina Stanford and Tim McIntosh
Angelina Stanford and Tim McIntosh are two of our best friends here at CiRCE - and two of our favorite people to discuss books with. That's why when we were discussing who should co-host our Close Reads podcast they quickly jumped to the top of the list. One year later we've spent hours and hours discussing shorts stories and novels and laughing uproariously at our own terrible jokes. But then we got to thinking about what it actually means to read something closely. The show is called Close Reads but what do we mean when we use those words. The following conversation helps answer that question and hopefully provides some good ideas for your own teaching and reading.
DAVID: Given that together we host a podcast called "Close Reads” it seems appropriate that we discuss what that name actually means. You know, other than just being a catchy name. When you think of reading a book “closely” what do you think of? Does it mean reading slowly? Taking notes? Is it as simple as specific reading practices like that?
ANGELINA: The first thing that comes to mind when I think about reading something closely is reading slowly. Its funny to me how many people assume that because I read a lot that I must read fast. I have never been a particularly fast reader because I have always enjoyed the experience of a book. What I mean is, I read all the dialogue “out loud” in my head--with accents! It's like I'm acting it all out in my head. That slows me way down but increases my enjoyment greatly. When I'm making decisions about how to deliver certain lines, where to put the emphasis, I'm also sort of interpreting it. I'm trying to feel what these characters are feeling so that I can express the dialogue in the right way. Typically reading fast requires you to scan with your eyes and not read it out loud in your head, complete with dramatic pauses. But I guess I always wanted to have fun reading more than I wanted to read fast, so I've been given dramatic readings in my head since I was a kid. Long before I had any notion of trying to read something scholarly or for greater understanding, I knew that I wanted to hear the book in my head. Later, that lifelong skill of reading slowly served me well and made it easy to transition to other types of close readings.
Tim, I imagine you feel similarly, given your theater background.
TIM: I do, David. I think a close-reader shares something in common with an actor who is preparing to stage a text. The purpose of both close-reading and actor-preparation is this: Both hope to imaginatively inhabit a text or character. When Michael Fassbender prepared to play Macbeth, he did not think, "I must critique Macbeth's megalomania." Instead, he thought, "I must inhabit Macbeth's megalomania." This can be a scary process. I remember preparing to play MacBeth. During the rehearsal period, I wrestled with violent thoughts. I shouldn't be surprised, having to utter lines like this ten times a day:
I am in blood
Stepped in so far that should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
I'm convinced I'd not have had those violent thoughts if not for the fact that I was trying to inhabit MacBeth. For sanity's sake, close-reading need not be as immersive as an actor preparing for a role. You can be a great close-reader without feeling greatly murderous. Nevertheless, close-reading shares something with an actor preparing: Both tend toward imaginative immersion. Both tend to affect the nerves.
I’m a relatively slow reader compared to many of my friends (and even many of my students over the years), but there’s something to be said for luxuriating in a book. That said, I often find myself racing against my Goodreads goal, so to speak. Wanting to race through a book so I can check it off the list and be on to the next one. I need to force myself to get over this and consciously slow down.
ANGELINA: Reading slowly is crucial. It allows me to have the time to take in more of the story. Generally, on a first read, we are primarily focused on the plot. We are driven by the question, what happens next and we typically want that question answered sooner rather than later. But that speed prevents us from taking in all the other details that give greater meaning to the story. And of course that's why ideally we want to read books more than once, so we can have that plot-driven focus on a first read and then come back and read more slowly and take in more of all the other details---the structure, the symbols, the foreshadowing, the beauty of the writing.
Analysis, when used in balance with experiencing a work, can be a very useful tool to further our understanding. But to approach a work with the intention of critiquing it is an act of hubris.
Does the way we do school sort of implicitly force students to speed read, you think?
TIM: I think contemporary schooling urges students toward critical reading rather than close-reading. Contemporary schooling asks students to hunt for motifs, critiques, and political themes. But I think a close-reading tends to be pre-critical; not a-critical, but pre-critical. Do you guys agree?
ANGELINA: I love the distinction you are making here. CS Lewis talks about this in An Experiment in Criticism and I discuss it in my CiRCE talk, “The Humble Reader.” First and foremost to read literature is to have an experience. And if we want to be good readers, we have to try as much as we are able to fully immerse ourselves in the experience. Only then, are we in any kind of position to offer an analysis. Notice I say, analysis rather than critique, or critical reading.
Analysis, when used in balance with experiencing a work, can be a very useful tool to further our understanding. But to approach a work with the intention of critiquing it, is an act of hubris. In other words, I don't think it's appropriate for us to approach a work as a judge of that work. Putting ourselves in that lofty position creates distance between us and the book; it keeps us from fully experiencing it and therefore we can't offer an accurate judgment. Lewis points out that our judgments typically say more about us than they do about the work. And we can debate at what point (if any) it's appropriate to offer a judgment, but certainly that cannot be our starting point. Not if we want to understand the work. And certainly not if we hope to enjoy it.
I suppose I should offer the caveat that not all books deserve the benefit of the doubt and the withholding of judgment. But when we are talking about the Classics or the Great Books, Lewis tells us that if others have found goodness there, then we should open ourselves up to experience the same.
TIM: Yes, I think we're both assuming that the books we're reading are classics — or at least of a very high-calibre. John Milton — not John Grisham.
I agree with what you said: "to approach a work with the intention of critiquing it, is an act of hubris." To be hubristic is to think highly of one's self. To be charitable is to think highly of others. To approach a book with charity is to approach a book presuming it is costly, worthy of esteem and affection.
Might I suggest a parallel here?: How a Christian reads her books is how she will read her neighbors?
So if as Tim puts it, contemporary schooling asks students to read critically, as opposed to closely, how can we change that? In other words, what does it look like, in practice, to teach students to read closely? I think critical reading is popular, in part, because it’s relatively easy to teach and assess. It’s quantifiable and offers structure. There are steps, and rights and wrongs, and so on.
TIM: David's right. Critical reading is suited to modern bureaucratic education. It's quantifiable and offers structure.
In this sense, critical reading is like the names-and-dates approach to history. A student might be trained to tell you that the French Revolution occurred in July 14, 1789. That's a perfect test question. But, beyond the test, its useless if the student doesn't know what's really important — the significance of the French Revolution!
Likewise, the critical-reading student can tell what symbols William Golding used in in Lord of the Flies. But if the student wasn't immersed in the story and gripped by the characters the symbols will be forgotten the moment the test is turned in. Nothing important happens inside the student.
The goal instead is to help the student immerse himself in Lord of the Flies. To have the student care enough to love or hate the story. And to be so immersed to say, "I could have done that to Piggy!"
How then to teach and assess student ability? Through discussion and conversation. But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. What do you think, Angelina?
ANGELINA: I think the first thing is to not walk into class expecting your students to give a judgment about the work. Don’t walk in and say, what do you think this means? Don't start expecting an analysis. Lewis says something like, students are really good at figuring out what you want them to say and they will give it to you. But I always tell my students, I don't want you to tell me what I think about this book. I already know what I think. I don't want you to try to replicate my experience with this book. I want to know about your experience.
That sounds like you’re freeing them from the tyranny of that classroom bureaucracy mentioned earlier.
ANGELINA: It is both liberating and terrifying for the student. On the one hand, it's freeing. They can have their own unique encounter with a book. They can connect with the things that are meaningful to them right now, in the place they are in their life. They don't have to experience a book like someone who has read it repeatedly. On the other hand, it's terrifying because they are out of the kiddie pool. They are in the deep end. They can't rely on spitting my own words back to me. It's like taking the training wheels off. It's scary.
So, instead of asking for a judgment, I usually start class asking my students to tell me something they connected to within the reading. And that can be anything: a beautiful line, a funny scene, a meaningful passage, something weird or something that was confusing. And it's a beautiful thing watching them grow in this process as the year progresses. They start off telling me something funny or something beautiful and the more comfortable they become, they will start getting vulnerable and telling me about passages that gave them insight into themselves.
And that's not to say that there isn't any analysis. There absolutely is. But it grows out of their experience. I get most excited when my students say, this passage was weird. I don't know what it means, but I think it's important. I love when they say that. That's the starting point. I don't know what this means, but I think it's important. Then you can start thinking about it and analyzing it. But only after you have experienced the whole.
TIM: I love what you said, Angelina, that analysis or interpretation "grows out of their experience". That's a vital principle for teaching literature. Let the student bring his own loves, experiences, and convictions to bear upon his analysis. When the student's experience doesn't match up with the literature (when it seems "weird", as Angelina said), a lively investigation can begin!
Here's an example: In St. Augustine's Confessions, Augustine and his friends steal pears from a neighborhood orchard. Afterward, Augustine suffers paroxysms of guilt. A student might struggle to understand how guilty Augustine' feels; it's "weird" that Augustine would be wracked by a seemingly minor sin. But, if the teacher invites a student to examine his own experience, the student might discover a moment when he too felt the heat of guilt from something seemingly inconsequential. Now profound engagement with literature has begun! The Confessions now have a voice with a student!
ANGELINA: That’s why I strongly object to any worksheet approach to teaching literature. We had to do that when I was a student. We would read a Great Book and then fill out a worksheet: main characters, setting, conflict, major themes. At that point, I had been a lifelong lover of literature. But those worksheets destroyed that love. I actually filled them out without even reading the books. Because if the point was the worksheet, why bother reading the book?
TIM: Imagine a teacher beginning class by saying, "Like Augustine, you ought to feel the enormous consequence of your sin." By leading with the moral, the teacher bypasses the student's personal, moral imagination in favor of results-based moralizing. Teacher, beware! Is there a place for overtly teaching moral precepts? Absolutely. The Scriptures are replete with overt teachings. Yet, there is a pattern in the Scriptures that is often-neglected. In the Scriptures, the story precedes the moral.
For example, Jesus' injunction to, "go and sin no more" follows a story about the Pharisees prosecuting a woman caught in adultery. A story precedes the injunction — a narrative precedes the command — to "go and sin no more." Even the Ten Commandments (a series of injunctions) follow the story of God saving Israel from oppression. The preface to the Ten Commandments is, "I am the Lord your God who brought you from Egypt.”
ANGELINA: Another consideration is that one of the reasons the Great Books are Great is because every time we return to them, they give us fresh insight. In other words, when I read Pride and Prejudice at seventeen I had a different experience than when I read it in my thirties. I want to teach my classes in a way that honors the experience of the seventeen-year-old and doesn't expect my students to have the experience of a forty-year-old.