"CLOSE READING: AN INTRODUCTION"
FAMILY MEDICINE FORUM VANCOUVER 2010 WRITING, READING, AND REFLECTION WORKSHOP AN INTRODUCTION TO CLOSE READING In a general sense, close reading is the practice of paying a special kind of attention to the compositional details of a text. Close reading considers how a text functions at the level of its details to account for its overall effect or impression. Close reading is a kind of textual analysis that aims to gather evidence to arrive at an interpretation of that text—determining what a text means, or what it shows. Close reading is a kind of qualitative analysis and is not confined to literary studies. For example an art critic may do a close reading of the etchings of Lucian Freud. a cultural studies scholar may do a close reading of the West Edmonton Mall. a historian could do a close reading of a photograph or a document from a war or a 19th century hospital. HOW TO BEGIN 1. Read with a pencil in your hand and annotate the text. Highlight anything that strikes you as surprising or significant or that raises questions. Make notes in the margins. The following list of questions and suggestions is not inclusive, but pursuing them with any literary work will be productive. Inevitably, however, some questions will be more productive than others with any given text. For our purposes today, I have keyed some of the following general areas of inquiry to questions that relate specifically “Me and Oxycodone.” To begin, identify the narrator. Who is he or she? How much can you infer about the narrator from details in the text? Gender? Age? Educational level? How would you characterize his or her voice? (See question 1.) Next, look for clues to locate the setting: the most straightforward definition of setting is the time frame, the physical locale and (if you can identify it) the social milieu of the narrative. In some narratives, however, setting can be more complex. The setting around the production of the narrative can add a significant layer of meaning, and at times, there may be an alternate setting within the main setting—for example a flashback within the story moves it to a different time and place. (See question 2.) See if you can tease out a structure. All organized writing has a structure, so you can always ask about the structure the writer has used. Identify the emotional tone, the mood. All writing has an emotional tone, even if that tone is cold, detached or distant. Who is the audience? This can be established by looking at what the writer assumes the reader knows and does not know, as well identifying any implied expectations for the reader. (See question 3.) You can always ask questions about the diction, or word choice. What do you notice about the word choice? Formal or informal? Are any words used unusually? Incorrectly? What does the level of diction suggest about the educational level of the writer? What does the diction suggest about the writer’s occupation? (See questions 4 and 5.) Does the writer use any metaphors or other figures of speech? Eg. Does the writer refer to illness as a battle, for example, with the body as battleground? (See question 6.) How does the writer present him or herself as a character? Ask yourself, what does the writer emphasize, and what de-emphasize? Then ask why the writer made those choices. You may also look for violations in what is usually considered to be normal in terms of quality, quantity and relevance in the telling of the story. For example, if the writer avoids a question, or answers very briefly, it may be worth pursuing what is being withheld. 2. Look for patterns in the things you’ve noticed about the text—repetitions, contradictions, and similarities. For example, one contradiction in this piece is evident in the nurses’ characterization of his behaviour as “goofy” where we can see that his behaviour makes sense when framed as an adverse reaction to oxycodone. A more interesting contradiction is present between his subjective experience of the intensely threatening hallucinations that he describes in a detached and almost clinical voice. (See questions 5 and 6.) 3. Pull your observations together into an interpretation. What is the relationship between the parts and the whole? How do parts or aspects contribute to or constitute something? How do they interconnect? Seeking a relationship between the parts and the whole becomes a statement of that relationship—an argument since it is a claim and is supported by evidence. There is no “correct” interpretation of the narrative. Qualitative thinking deals with probabilities, rather than certainties. Your understanding of the contribution of the parts or the essential quality of the whole will be a matter of persuasion—the most probable analysis being the one that makes the more sense of more details than other analyses. August 23, 2010