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What Is Close Reading?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 17, 2024
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Close reading describes a method for evaluating and writing a critical analysis of fiction and poetry. It is generally employed in interpreting a shorter part of a larger work or a particular passage of a longer poem. The analysis is written in essay form and addresses the construction of the work, including such matters as its content, theme, texture and use of literary devices.

When doing a close reading, it is important for the essayist to carefully examine the text and look for certain features, noting or annotating what she finds. The first consideration is describing the content of the work and what it is really about. This involves a brief explanation of the characters and setting of the work. The passage reviewed should be set in the context of the larger story.

Every writer will have a distinctive voice and style, her own approach to words and their arrangement. Many literary devices such as alliteration, symbolism, and metaphor are used in both poetry and prose. It is important for someone doing a close reading to identify the writing style and how it conforms to what the writer is trying to convey. The voice and style of the writing affect its tone, and the way it makes the reader feel about it.

Assessing and identifying the theme of the work is a critical aspect of a close reading. The theme can be related to almost any subject. It could about love, isolation, the meaning of courage or honor. Discovering whether the theme in the passage is consistent with the work as whole or is one that appears in other works of the writer can add a sense of context to the essay. It may be possible to demonstrate how a particular theme habitually appears in the writer’s work.

Determining the real meaning of a word or phrase can sometimes be a part of a close reading. This is particularly true of poetry, which uses compression of language and imaginative word choices and sentence structures to achieve its effects. Metaphors and symbols may have greater meaning than they first appear to have. This is true of prose as well. An object or a place, even a certain book on table may have great symbolic significance for the story.

A close reading may also help relate the work to other works. A passage from a book or a work of poetry can be also be explained by its relation to other works. Where a book “belongs” helps identity its message as well as the type of literature it is. It may be that a passage is reflective of a long line of work dealing with the theme of redemption for instance. The passage under scrutiny may also approach the topic from a new perspective that adds to the body of existing literature.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Feb 15, 2015

@pleonasm - I can understand that sort of cynicism and in some ways I do think you're right. Very careful authors might put a lot of thought into every aspect of their work, but more often than not I suspect some of the details are not chosen consciously to fit into a particular metaphor.

But, to me, a close reading has to take into account a lot of things and some of those things are nothing to do with what the author consciously decided to put in his or her novel. What can be just as important is what they included because of their own bias or background without knowing the reason. They might also have put in blue curtains because they were trying to create a melancholy atmosphere and when they imagined it in their head, the curtains were naturally blue, rather than pink.

A really good book is an exploration, by the author and by the reader and I think a close reading might sometimes reveal things that neither of them were aware of prior to the analysis.

By pleonasm — On Feb 14, 2015

@Ana1234 - I've always been cynical about this, even when I was at school. I simply don't believe that authors put the amount of thought into each sentence that some teachers seem to be able to pull out of it.

They are mostly just hoping to tell a good story and will pick the color of the curtains or whatever at random. It's only when people decide to do a close reading and assign meaning to the color that it becomes significant, but that's got nothing to do with the original intention of the author.

By Ana1234 — On Feb 13, 2015

Even if you aren't writing any kind of analysis of a book or story, a close reading can be very helpful and enlightening. I think the practice gets a bad reputation because it's forced on kids at school and they aren't shown how to enjoy it.

They are just expected to figure out how to say exactly what the teacher expects them to say. But a close reading should be about figuring out what the author was trying to say and what the piece actually says to you, which could be two very different things.

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