Why Close Reading Is Overrated

We’ve all been there: scratching our heads, scratching in annotations, and scratching the cover of a classical text like Othello or A Midsummer Night’s Dream in frustration as the teacher instructs us to close read to “gain a deeper understanding of the text.” I’ve heard that phrase for the past seven terms at Deerfield. Despite my very patient English teachers who have tried to explain close reading to me, I have yet to understand what this process entails. As a result, I’ve started to question the need for a grindstone such as close reading. While I wholeheartedly believe that close reading is an indispensable part of literary education, it has become over-emphasized in the classroom for two reasons. First, close reading has crowded out other skills that will be more practical in the future such as skim reading. Second, close reading without sufficient background knowledge leads to unstructured yapping on English essays. Instead, I believe we should place more emphasis on contextualization.

For a bit of history, close reading started as a result of Cambridge Critic Ivor Armstrong Richards’ desire for students to “appreciate the liveliness and multiplicity of language.” Richards gave his students poems without explaining any of the surrounding contexts, and asked them to analyze its syntax structure. Later scholars, such as Literary Critic William Empson, continued Richard’s practice, believing that students would benefit from taking a step back from the larger narrative and examining a text in parts. Ultimately, we get to our modern definition of close reading as a “careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of a text.” While this definition is not all-encompassing, it captures the general process of close reading: holding the text at pen-tip while angrily interrogating it to get the concessions we need for our next essay.

Close reading, while still an important skill, is one of the less important practical skills for us to learn. Close reading requires us to scrutinize small portions of the texts intensely. The practice is primarily meant to teach us to appreciate the linguistic complexity of good writing, but for the average person, such intensity will probably never be required. I assure you that bosses are far from “close reading” your emails about fiscal quarters or rescheduling meetings. The kind of writing and reading skills that our future requires are centered around efficiency and clarity. The majority of professions prefer a writing style that is concise, articulate, and straightforward. No one wants to read a flowery medical report that hides their final result in a beautifully crafted metaphor of roses wilting. Education should be partially instrumental, and current classrooms have an imbalance.

Instead, students could benefit from spending a period learning how to effectively skim-read, maximizing understanding in minimal time. After all, that’s how we operate outside of school. From skimming news articles to reading financial reports or long emails, our workforce prioritizes summarization and quick comprehension over the close reading that we practice so often in our classrooms.

But convenience isn’t the only benefit. Effective skim-reading allows people to develop skills to think on their feet quickly, allowing them to digest information quicker. Incorporating this change will enhance people’s experience with close reading, as they will have a much larger literary bank from which to draw connections and words from that help elevate their writing and discussion contributions.

The second reason close reading is overemphasized is how it forces us to de-prioritize story context. Often, close reading discussions fall flat because no one knows where to start, forcing the teacher to introduce content to stay on track. While maximizing the cognitive diversity of viewpoints from close reading is good, we need to have some common understanding of the text. Too often have I mistakenly identified a core theme, only for the teacher to cringe a little and say, “I do appreciate your contribution…But…” It’s a real sucker punch to self-confidence in class, which undoubtedly affects our ability to learn. Not only that, but we don’t all start in the same place. Some people are very linguistically talented, while others struggle at every word. As a result, it’s discouraging when everyone around you seems to get it but you are the only one who doesn’t. Ultimately, the close reading that we see in classrooms has slowly been inching toward “closed” readings, and without the context behind the work, we’re trying to reinvent the wheel and taking time away from diving into the real complexities of a text.

It would be more beneficial to instead put more focus into helping students understand readings in context, doing things like reacting to authorial intent, discussing various existing interpretations, and responding to the larger context that the work was written in. Of course, not all of these skills are diametrically opposed to close reading, but I do believe that the current emphasis on close reading crowds opportunities to practice these skills out.

However, we shouldn’t skip out entirely on close reading, and finding the balance of what skills should be taught in the classroom is a feat that is far beyond me (There’s a reason why Mrs. Steim-Miller is the English department chair, and I’m not). Close reading isn’t gospel, and it’s better if we keep a healthy dose of skepticism. Or, maybe, I’m just reading too closely into it

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