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14 Aug 2013

Defining Close Reading

Timothy Shanahan, University of Illinois, Chicago

Close reading by anyone's definition (including probably mine) could exclude critical reading because such reading requires the imposition of some kind of external standards of quality or value. (In other words, true close reading allows explanation, but not evaluation). However, that means a reader would not be allowed to notice logical inconsistencies or factual errors within a text during a close reading (since logic and knowledge of the world are clearly external to the texts themselves). However, when one examines famous "close reads" such as those published by Wayne Booth (his analysis of Turn of the Screw is marvelous; 1961) or William Empson (1930), it is evident that they don't reject the idea of considering value or ambiguity or inconsistency in their close readings. E. D. Hirsch (1967), when he was still somewhat entangled with the New Criticism, explicitly took the position that it was essential for the reader to understand what a text said and how it worked prior to engaging in critical analysis but, ultimately, critical analysis is part of the package, even if it comes late to the party.

The version of close reading that I like best is that espoused by Mortimer Adler and Carl Van Doren (1940). They take a similar position to Hirsch. You first have to understand what a text says and how it works, but ultimately it is legitimate to turn your attention to issues of quality and value (personal or societal) when reading. In fact, I believe that view is built into the Common Core State Standards. Look at the organization of the reading standards (Key Ideas and Details—which are clearly about summarizing what texts say; Craft and Structure—which are clearly about determining how a text works and what the author's prospective is; and Integration of knowledge and meaning—which gets into evaluative judgments and text comparisons (Adler and Van Doren's syntoptic reading).

There are important inconsistencies and problems in close reading. That, in part, is what the New Criticism eventually collapsed. The rules got too strenuous and prohibitive for good readers to trust in them, so the world moved on. CCSS is bringing back a great concept, and yet it is one that should not be policed too carefully or it will likely collapse again. 


Adler, M.J., & Van Doren, C. (1940).  How to read a book:  The classic guide to intelligent reading.  Touchstone Publishers.

Booth, W.C. (1961). The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago, IL:  Univ. of Chicago Press.

Empson, W. (1930).  Seven types of ambiguity.  London:  Chatto and Windus. 

Hirsch, E.D. (1967).  Validity in interpretation.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.