As a lover of literature, I revel in the discoveries you can make by reading texts closely.
Whether it’s a news story, a set of technical instructions, or a poem by Robert Frost, paying close attention to what the words actually say is the only way to understand the complexities of the message. And from a clear grasp of what that text says, you can move on to coherent analysis – taking care to rely on evidence within the text.
Close reading and argument from texts is one of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts that are helping Tennessee’s schoolchildren prepare for a complex world.
Part of the standard says: “Students should be able to answer a range of text-dependent questions, questions in which the answers require inferences based on careful attention to the text.”
The idea may seem obvious. Yet in too many classrooms across America, from elementary to high school, articles and stories often serve mainly as starting points for talking about personal experiences and feelings. Suddenly what the writer wrote has gotten lost in what the students are thinking and feeling that day.
Don’t get me wrong. Experiences and feelings are important. Self-expression is important. But to succeed in school, and in college and careers, young people must be able to comprehend difficult material.
For a long time in literary criticism, the fashion in studying works of literature was to lean heavily on knowledge of the author’s life. What was he going through at this period? What was she saying in her letters? Which people or books were important influences? Often only secondary attention was paid to what the work actually said.
A movement called the New Criticism in the mid-20th century changed all that. Almost to the exclusion of other factors, these critics homed in on the words, the images, the structure of the works as the true keys to comprehending their meaning – or meanings.
Sure, a writer’s biography is important. But I read literature for its beauty, for the depths it plumbs, for what it can teach me, not primarily to learn what the author’s mood was when he penned Chapter 12.
Before we can intelligently express ourselves about a narrative, we must read it with care. It may say more than is apparent at first. A close-reading essay by the critic Cleanth Brooks opened my eyes to paradoxical meanings in one of my favorite poets, William Wordsworth. I had thought I knew Wordsworth’s richness; with delighted wonder I learned how much I had missed.
Beyond the classroom, as fast-moving events change the world each day, the skill of mastering the meaning of messages is invaluable. Too few of us have it. It takes concentration. But the rewards are incalculable – better preparation, greater understanding, higher appreciation for what is beautiful and lasting.
When you think about it, there’s really no other way to read.