In Defense of Close Reading

by Peter Bernard

Most of us have been there before: it’s midterm season, problem sets and take-homes lurk on the horizon, and you’ve got a paper due in a few days. What’s worse, you haven’t even touched the readings yet.

 You might think, I can’t do this. Given that the time frame is a couple of days and not a couple of hours, chances are you can. Or you might think, I don’t have time to do the readings—I’ll just skim them and start writing as soon as possible.

 What I want to emphasize here is this: Don’t do it!

You will be much better off if you devote your time to a slow, close reading of what you can get through and then save a little bit of time at the end for a very quick skim of whatever’s left. A lukewarm skim of everything will not get you far in generating original ideas that you can massage into a thesis.

And this advice doesn’t just apply to when you have a time crunch on your hands. As a general rule, I urge you to devote your time for readings, as much as possible, to a close reading, and avoid skimming whenever you can—even if it means that you aren’t able to get through as much of the material.

Of course, this depends to an extent on the discipline: skimming will probably prove more fruitful for secondary theoretical texts or historical documents, and for evaluating potential sources for a research paper it can be downright helpful (For good advice in this regard, see our  post about evaluating sources: “Should I Go All the Way? The Ten-Minute Drill”). Some students also feel like they have no choice but to skim, given that many courses assign far more reading than is possible to engage with thoroughly. Don’t worry about that—it is a problem all the students in the class are struggling with. Use our Ten-Minute Drill to determine what you want to focus in on, and then sit down to do some heavy-duty close reading. Above all, if what you’re working on is a “primary source”—that is, a source where it’s important to pay attention to form (prosody, style, word choice, imagery, argumentative steps) as well as content—then skimming will get you next to nowhere, whereas close reading will take you far indeed.

Well then, what exactly do I mean by a “close reading”? What are good approaches for reading closely? Here are a few pointers:

1.      Close reading, above all, means that you engage with the text on a personal level. Forget that the text is “assigned,” and try, as much as possible, to trick yourself into the mindset that you are reading it for fun or leisure. I know this can be hard. We’ve all been assigned texts that we don’t want to read or that we find boring. But that’s all right, too—channel your rage and ask yourself, Why is this text boring? Can I find specific reasons why I can’t engage with it as I would with other texts? Can I point to some specific faults that this text might have? Keeping focused and probing why you connect–or don’t connect–with a text is the first step toward coming up with paper-worthy points.

2.      Take notes. Different people do this in different ways. Many people like to highlight the text or write notes in the margins; I like to write out notes in a separate notebook. That way, I can keep the text’s slate clean so that I won’t be influenced by old thoughts on rereadings, and I can organize my points in a notebook in such a way that they work off each other. For example, let’s say an ambiguity has piqued your interest and you make note of it. It’s likely that the next point in the text that stands out to you will be in dialogue with the previous point, maybe clarifying it or complicating it further, and you can log this linkage in your notes, too. This is something you wouldn’t be able to do as easily if you were annotating the texts themselves, because the points are likely pages apart. I find that by taking notes in a separate place this way, outlines for papers often build themselves—you’ll find that your points start to connect in surprising ways, and, if you stay focused, next thing you know you’ve come up with a thesis with plenty of text-specific evidence.

3.      And of course, as I just mentioned—stay focused. Some people can read in noisy, bustling environments; more power to them. I can’t, so I don’t even attempt to tackle my readings unless I know I have a chunk of time on my hands in which I won’t be interrupted and bothered. That way, I can enter into the world of the text and let my ideas flow in tandem with its movements, instead of having start-and-stop, staccato ideas that don’t connect with one another. I know it can be a difficult thing to do nowadays, but close the computer, turn the phone off, and give yourself to the text. Chances are, you’ll find things are much easier when it comes to write the next paper.

Peter Bernard ‘11 tutors at the Writing Center and concentrates in East Asian Studies.

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