On close reading

by onepuzzledspecies

Searching through old folders from my various literature classes, I came across the first essay I wrote on Auden, from my Connecticut days. In a majority of my English Classes at the University of Connecticut, the work required from students was almost exclusively close reading – and a lot of it. As I mentioned in the previous post, we would sometimes be required to hand in three documents a week with interpretations and readings of poems or passages – per class. I have given this heavy emphasis on the method of close reading some thought, as it differs quite a bit from the kind of methods encouraged at the University of Oslo. One the one hand, “pure” close reading risks promoting an essentially uncritical point of view, in which one’s own intuitive, personal, immediate or emotional reactions to a piece of writing are given precedence, and allowed to remain unchecked by such factors as historical, social or ideational context. This is unproblematic as long as literature is treated as art only, i.e. as separated from precisely its social or political context, for instance. A problem may arise, however, once literature enters the wider social discourse of ideas, in which the truth value of whatever ideas presented may need to be evaluated more closely. Secondly, of course, one reads as if the piece of writing in question had never had any readers before oneself, and thus risks stating as an ingenious novelty something there has been written 15 books about already.

On the other hand, the significance of a work of literature is bound to change for every generation (not to mention for every reader). In a contemporary discourse, a first-person response to a poem might be equally relevant as a heavily footnoted analysis. And what does one read literature for in the first place, if not for its personal impact and subjective significance? A prominant aspect of the uniqueness of “literature” is, after all, its subjective dimension: We have no choice but to experience life, orient ourselves in it, and make our choices in it, as individual subjects. And a work of literature tells you something not only about life, but about how (an) may live that life. So in a way, privileging the personal response to a poem is a very honest strategy. It also gives you some training in how to write as an  individual: I have written – and keep writing – plenty of essays where I hide each point of view behind a source or reference to a fact, which might be tolerable as far as scholarship is concerned, but if that is all one does one’s writing is sure to end up on dusty, academic bookshelves – and nowwhere else.

Close reading, then, is a way to kick-start one’s soul – I’m a student of literature, so I’m allowed to use those kinds of terms! –  into consciousness. It forces you to have an opnion, to adopt a point of view, etc. The Americans, of course, have understood this. An average seminar at the University of Connecticut would be filled with eloquent, individualized responses to the object of study, which produced a very dynamic environment for thinking. At times, of course, personal opinons will be superficial or banal – but they aren’t less so if you only keep quiet about them.

I may post parts on the Auden essay on this blog afterwards to illustrate what an almost unsourced reading may look like. Ironically, I’m not actually all that personal in my response – but delving deeper into Auden’s authorship has encouraged me to dare to be more personal, not less.