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Close reading describes, in literary criticism
Literary criticism
Literary criticism is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals...

, the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read.

The technique as practiced today was pioneered (at least in English) by I.A. Richards and his student William Empson
William Empson
Sir William Empson was an English literary critic and poet.He was known as "燕卜荪" in Chinese.He was widely influential for his practice of closely reading literary works, fundamental to the New Critics...

, later developed further by the New Critics of the mid-twentieth century. It is now a fundamental method of modern criticism. Close reading is sometimes called explication de texte
Explication de Texte
Explication de Texte is a French formalist method of literary analysis that allows for limited reader response, similar to close reading in the English-speaking literary tradition. The method involves a detailed yet relatively objective examination of structure, style, imagery, and other aspects...

, which is the name for the similar tradition of textual interpretation in French
France
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

 literary study, a technique whose chief proponent was Gustave Lanson
Gustave Lanson
Gustave Lanson was a French historian and literary critic. He taught at the Sorbonne in Paris.-Biography:...

.

Background


Literary close reading and commentaries have extensive precedent in the exegesis
Exegesis
Exegesis is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially a religious text. Traditionally the term was used primarily for exegesis of the Bible; however, in contemporary usage it has broadened to mean a critical explanation of any text, and the term "Biblical exegesis" is used...

 of religious texts. For example, Pazand, a genre of middle Persian
Middle Persian
Middle Persian , indigenously known as "Pârsig" sometimes referred to as Pahlavi or Pehlevi, is the Middle Iranian language/ethnolect of Southwestern Iran that during Sassanid times became a prestige dialect and so came to be spoken in other regions as well. Middle Persian is classified as a...

 literature, refers to the Zend (literally: 'commentary'/'translation') texts that offer explanation and close reading of the Avesta
Avesta
The Avesta is the primary collection of sacred texts of Zoroastrianism, composed in the Avestan language.-Early transmission:The texts of the Avesta — which are all in the Avestan language — were composed over the course of several hundred years. The most important portion, the Gathas,...

, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrianism
Zoroastrianism is a religion and philosophy based on the teachings of prophet Zoroaster and was formerly among the world's largest religions. It was probably founded some time before the 6th century BCE in Greater Iran.In Zoroastrianism, the Creator Ahura Mazda is all good, and no evil...

. The scriptural commentaries of the Talmud
Talmud
The Talmud is a central text of mainstream Judaism. It takes the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history....

 offer a commonly cited early predecessor to close reading. In Islamic studies, the close reading of the Koran has flourished and produced an immense corpus. But the closest religious analogy to contemporary literary close reading, and the principal historical connection with its birth, is the rise of the higher criticism, and the evolution of textual criticism
Textual criticism
Textual criticism is a branch of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification and removal of transcription errors in the texts of manuscripts...

 of the Bible in Germany in the late eighteenth century.

Examples


A truly attentive close reading of a two-hundred-word poem might be thousands of words long without exhausting the possibilities for observation and insight. To take an even more extreme example, Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida
Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher, born in French Algeria. He developed the critical theory known as deconstruction and his work has been labeled as post-structuralism and associated with postmodern philosophy...

's essay Ulysses Gramophone, which J. Hillis Miller
J. Hillis Miller
Joseph Hillis Miller, Jr. is an American literary critic who has been heavily influenced by—and who has heavily influenced—deconstruction.- Early life and education :...

 describes as a "hyperbolic, extravagant... explosion" of the technique of close reading, devotes more than eighty pages to an interpretation of the word "yes" in James Joyce
James Joyce
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was an Irish novelist and poet, considered to be one of the most influential writers in the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century...

's modernist novel
Modernist literature
Modernist literature is sub-genre of Modernism, a predominantly European movement beginning in the early 20th century that was characterized by a self-conscious break with traditional aesthetic forms...

 Ulysses
Ulysses (novel)
Ulysses is a novel by the Irish author James Joyce. It was first serialised in parts in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920, and then published in its entirety by Sylvia Beach on 2 February 1922, in Paris. One of the most important works of Modernist literature,...

.

See also

  • Book report
  • Explication de Texte
    Explication de Texte
    Explication de Texte is a French formalist method of literary analysis that allows for limited reader response, similar to close reading in the English-speaking literary tradition. The method involves a detailed yet relatively objective examination of structure, style, imagery, and other aspects...

  • Reading (process)
    Reading (process)
    Reading is a complex cognitive process of decoding symbols for the intention of constructing or deriving meaning . It is a means of language acquisition, of communication, and of sharing information and ideas...

  • Slow reading
    Slow reading
    Slow reading is the intentional reduction in the speed of reading, carried out to increase comprehension or pleasure. The concept appears to have originated in the study of philosophy and literature as a technique to more fully comprehend and appreciate a complex text...


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