How to Do a Close Reading

What Is Close Reading?

Writing an academic essay can be difficult sometimes. At school, students are often asked to write essays discussing art objects, movies and pieces of writing. Before starting to write, you need to do the close reading of the content. The purpose of close reading is to observe the details in the text and outline the main idea. You may highlight some structural elements, oppositions, the historical background of the document or other features of the text that could be interesting or useful. All these moves form the first step of close reading.

Further, you will need to interpret your observations and notes. The process of interpreting the information absorbed during close reading is called inductive reasoning. Inductive reasoning is the process of moving from information received after reading to particular conclusions. It requires gathering data and then thinking this data over to improve your ability to process information.

Close Reading Steps

We’re going to show how to perform a close reading on the example of the excerpt of the novel by Somerset Maugham “The Magician”:

“These ladies are unacquainted with the mysterious beings of whom you speak, cher ami. They should know that during the Middle Ages imagination peopled the four elements with bits of intelligence, normally unseen, some of which were friendly to man and others hostile. They were thought to be powerful and conscious of their power, though at the same time they were profoundly aware that they possessed no soul. Their life depended upon the continuance of some natural object, and hence for them, there could be no immortality. They must return eventually to the abyss of unending night, and the darkness of death afflicted them always. But it was thought that in the same manner as a man by his union with God had won a spark of divinity, so might the sylphs, gnomes, undines, and salamanders by an alliance with man partake of his immortality. And many of their women, whose beauty was more than human, gained a human soul by loving one of the races of men. But the reverse occurred also, and often a love-sick youth lost his immortality because he left the haunts of his kind to dwell with the fair, soulless denizens of the running streams or of the forest airs.”

When performing a close reading, you need to follow these steps:

  • Annotate
  • Observe patterns
  • Ask questions.

This will help you perform your work easier.

Annotate

After reading the first paragraph, you received the basic understanding of close reading. Now we are going to get down to the specific details describing how to do a close reading.

First, you will need a pencil or a marker to annotate the text. By highlighting passages and phrases, you can catch the meaning and remember essential ideas. Making notes in the margins can help you revisit some parts of the text and reflect. You may highlight anything that seems interesting or significant to you. Anything that catches your attention is worth highlighting. This way, we respond to what we read and follow the ideas of the author.

Observe Patterns

Observing patterns is one of the close reading techniques that help us memorise and then analyze the text. So, what do we observe when reading this excerpt? From the first lines, Maugham caught the readers’ attention with the description of how “imagination peopled the four elements with bits of intelligence”, and you start to trace further events. A larger question normally arises – who were those creatures and what they were like? Further, the author expands the characteristics of those creatures: “they were thought to be powerful and conscious of their power” and “they were profoundly aware that they possessed no soul.” The author gives us the in-depth characteristics of these creatures thus making readers imagine something that doesn’t exist now. By focusing on particular details, our mind starts to work inductively.

The statement that those creatures “possessed no soul” makes us curious of how they emerged. We don’t know where this narrative will lead us, but we already try to proceed reading to know more. Here you can make a note.

Observing the details of the language used in the narrative can bring us more information as well. For example, the narrator addresses his vis-a-vis as “cher ami” that means that he might be of the French origin. Also, the author uses metaphors when describing death – “abyss of the unending night” – helping us better memorize written passages. You may seek for other elements like similarities, contradictions, or repetitions for more in-depth analysis of the text.

This analysis of the excerpt showcases the close reading exercises.

Now let’s switch to the next step.

Don’t Hesitate to Ask Questions

Asking questions about the patterns you’ve found in the text is one of the close reading skills as well.

The questions you may wish to ask are as follows:

  • Why this event took place at that time?
  • Why did people react to the event this way?
  • Why are scholars interested in this subject so much?
  • How can this tendency be explained?
  • How to overcome these difficulties?
  • How does the researcher explain this phenomenon?

The questions “why” and “how” and the similar will help you to conduct a better analysis of the text and then process the data gathered. The questions should concern the patterns noticed when close reading the text.

With reference to the Maugham’s novel, the following questions may arise:

  • Why do we know little about these creatures?
  • How did those strange creatures appear?

These questions make us think that we don’t know all about evolution. Maybe strange creatures surround us, but we don’t see them because they are beyond our understanding. Most probably, we need more evidence to be able to answer these questions. This way, we can have our own ideas and start to interpret the text in our own manner. Further, we can proceed with our analysis and gradually engage in the process of writing an essay.

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