In transitioning from teaching university courses to teaching high school, I have of course thought a lot about “close reading,” as it’s called, and why it’s such an important thing. After all, it’s probably the most resented and questioned part of the traditional English course. Students (and Americans more generally) wonder why it is important to read so slowly, and whether close readings are really in proportion to the meanings that the author herself could possibly have intended.
We often describe close reading as “unpacking,” and we shouldn’t. Think of what this metaphor implies: it implies that we’re emptying out a bit of text by breaking it up into usable pieces. It associates understanding with consuming or exhausting the object.
Close reading is not a technique of making books available to criticism. It is how readers live in the moment, within the text. When Buddhists describe mindfulness, they emphasize awareness of the things that would normally be missed in our usual blur of purpose. Close reading is similarly mindful of the details and peripheries of things. Furthermore, close readings are synchronic. Multiplicity does not travel from Point A to Point B, as narrative does. It simply is; it is a set of rich, complex, but unvarying relations that resonate. Thus close readings carry us from an appreciation of what texts do (e.g. suspense, catharsis, inspiration) to an appreciation of what texts are, as constructions intricate enough to communicate an infinite variety of perceptions and ideas.
Through close reading, a text does not “unpack.” It unfolds.