A Short Guide to Close Reading for Literary Analysis
Use the guidelines below to learn about the practice of close reading.
When your teachers or professors ask you to analyze a literary text, they often look for something frequently called close reading. Close reading is deep analysis of how a literary text works; it is both a reading process and something you include in a literary analysis paper, though in a refined form.
Fiction writers and poets build texts out of many central components, including subject, form, and specific word choices. Literary analysis involves examining these components, which allows us to find in small parts of the text clues to help us understand the whole. For example, if an author writes a novel in the form of a personal journal about a character's daily life, but that journal reads like a series of lab reports, what do we learn about that character? What is the effect of picking a word like "tome" instead of "book"? In effect, you are putting the author's choices under a microscope.
The process of close reading should produce a lot of questions. It is when you begin to answer these questions that you are ready to participate thoughtfully in class discussion or write a literary analysis paper that makes the most of your close reading work.
Close reading sometimes feels like over-analyzing, but don't worry. Close reading is a process of finding as much information as you can in order form to as many questions as you can. When it is time to write your paper and formalize your close reading, you will sort through your work to figure out what is most convincing and helpful to the argument you hope to make and, conversely, what seems like a stretch. This guide imagines you are sitting down to read a text for the first time on your way to developing an argument about a text and writing a paper. To give one example of how to do this, we will read the poem "Design" by famous American poet Robert Frost and attend to four major components of literary texts: subject, form, word choice (diction), and theme.
If you want even more information about approaching poems specifically, take a look at our guide: How to Read a Poem.
As our guide to reading poetry suggests, have a pencil out when you read a text. Make notes in the margins, underline important words, place question marks where you are confused by something. Of course, if you are reading in a library book, you should keep all your notes on a separate piece of paper. If you are not making marks directly on, in, and beside the text, be sure to note line numbers or even quote portions of the text so you have enough context to remember what you found interesting.
The subject of a literary text is simply what the text is about. What is its plot? What is its most important topic? What image does it describe? It's easy to think of novels and stories as having plots, but sometimes it helps to think of poetry as having a kind of plot as well. When you examine the subject of a text, you want to develop some preliminary ideas about the text and make sure you understand its major concerns before you dig deeper.
In "Design," the speaker describes a scene: a white spider holding a moth on a white flower. The flower is a heal-all, the blooms of which are usually violet-blue. This heal-all is unusual. The speaker then poses a series of questions, asking why this heal-all is white instead of blue and how the spider and moth found this particular flower. How did this situation arise?
The speaker's questions seem simple, but they are actually fairly nuanced. We can use them as a guide for our own as we go forward with our close reading.
- Furthering the speaker's simple "how did this happen," we might ask, is the scene in this poem a manufactured situation?
- The white moth and white spider each use the atypical white flower as camouflage in search of sanctuary and supper respectively. Did these flora and fauna come together for a purpose?
- Does the speaker have a stance about whether there is a purpose behind the scene? If so, what is it?
- How will other elements of the text relate to the unpleasantness and uncertainty in our first look at the poem's subject?
After thinking about local questions, we have to zoom out. Ultimately, what is this text about?
Form is how a text is put together. When you look at a text, observe how the author has arranged it. If it is a novel, is it written in the first person? How is the novel divided? If it is a short story, why did the author choose to write short-form fiction instead of a novel or novella? Examining the form of a text can help you develop a starting set of questions in your reading, which then may guide further questions stemming from even closer attention to the specific words the author chooses. A little background research on form and what different forms can mean makes it easier to figure out why and how the author's choices are important.
Most poems follow rules or principles of form; even free verse poems are marked by the author's choices in line breaks, rhythm, and rhyme—even if none of these exists, which is a notable choice in itself. Here's an example of thinking through these elements in "Design."
In "Design," Frost chooses an Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet form: fourteen lines in iambic pentameter consisting of an octave (a stanza of eight lines) and a sestet (a stanza of six lines). We will focus on rhyme scheme and stanza structure rather than meter for the purposes of this guide. A typical Italian sonnet has a specific rhyme scheme for the octave:
a b b a a b b a
There's more variation in the sestet rhymes, but one of the more common schemes is
c d e c d e
Conventionally, the octave introduces a problem or question which the sestet then resolves. The point at which the sonnet goes from the problem/question to the resolution is called the volta, or turn. (Note that we are speaking only in generalities here; there is a great deal of variation.)
Frost uses the usual octave scheme with "-ite"/"-ight" (a) and "oth" (b) sounds: "white," "moth," "cloth," "blight," "right," "broth," "froth," "kite." However, his sestet follows an unusual scheme with "-ite"/"-ight" and "all" sounds:
a c a a c c
Now, we have a few questions with which we can start:
- Why use an Italian sonnet?
- Why use an unusual scheme in the sestet?
- What problem/question and resolution (if any) does Frost offer?
- What is the volta in this poem?
- In other words, what is the point?
Italian sonnets have a long tradition; many careful readers recognize the form and know what to expect from his octave, volta, and sestet. Frost seems to do something fairly standard in the octave in presenting a situation; however, the turn Frost makes is not to resolution, but to questions and uncertainty. A white spider sitting on a white flower has killed a white moth.
- How did these elements come together?
- Was the moth's death random or by design?
- Is one worse than the other?
We can guess right away that Frost's disruption of the usual purpose of the sestet has something to do with his disruption of its rhyme scheme. Looking even more closely at the text will help us refine our observations and guesses.
Word Choice, or Diction
Looking at the word choice of a text helps us "dig in" ever more deeply. If you are reading something longer, are there certain words that come up again and again? Are there words that stand out? While you are going through this process, it is best for you to assume that every word is important—again, you can decide whether something is really important later.
Even when you read prose, our guide for reading poetry offers good advice: read with a pencil and make notes. Mark the words that stand out, and perhaps write the questions you have in the margins or on a separate piece of paper. If you have ideas that may possibly answer your questions, write those down, too.
Let's take a look at the first line of "Design":
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white
The poem starts with something unpleasant: a spider. Then, as we look more closely at the adjectives describing the spider, we may see connotations of something that sounds unhealthy or unnatural. When we imagine spiders, we do not generally picture them dimpled and white; it is an uncommon and decidedly creepy image. There is dissonance between the spider and its descriptors, i.e., what is wrong with this picture? Already we have a question: what is going on with this spider?
We should look for additional clues further on in the text. The next two lines develop the image of the unusual, unpleasant-sounding spider:
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Now we have a white flower (a heal-all, which usually has a violet-blue flower) and a white moth in addition to our white spider. Heal-alls have medicinal properties, as their name suggests, but this one seems to have a genetic mutation—perhaps like the spider? Does the mutation that changes the heal-all's color also change its beneficial properties—could it be poisonous rather than curative? A white moth doesn't seem remarkable, but it is "Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth," or like manmade fabric that is artificially "rigid" rather than smooth and flowing like we imagine satin to be. We might think for a moment of a shroud or the lining of a coffin, but even that is awry, for neither should be stiff with death.
The first three lines of the poem's octave introduce unpleasant natural images "of death and blight" (as the speaker puts it in line four). The flower and moth disrupt expectations: the heal-all is white instead of "blue and innocent," and the moth is reduced to "rigid satin cloth" or "dead wings carried like a paper kite." We might expect a spider to be unpleasant and deadly; the poem's spider also has an unusual and unhealthy appearance.
- The focus on whiteness in these lines has more to do with death than purity—can we understand that whiteness as being corpse-like rather than virtuous?
Well before the volta, Frost makes a "turn" away from nature as a retreat and haven; instead, he unearths its inherent dangers, making nature menacing. From three lines alone, we have a number of questions:
- Will whiteness play a role in the rest of the poem?
- How does "design"—an arrangement of these circumstances—fit with a scene of death?
- What other juxtapositions might we encounter?
These disruptions and dissonances recollect Frost's alteration to the standard Italian sonnet form: finding the ways and places in which form and word choice go together will help us begin to unravel some larger concepts the poem itself addresses.
Put simply, themes are major ideas in a text. Many texts, especially longer forms like novels and plays, have multiple themes. That's good news when you are close reading because it means there are many different ways you can think through the questions you develop.
So far in our reading of "Design," our questions revolve around disruption: disruption of form, disruption of expectations in the description of certain images. Discovering a concept or idea that links multiple questions or observations you have made is the beginning of a discovery of theme.
What is happening with disruption in "Design"? What point is Frost making? Observations about other elements in the text help you address the idea of disruption in more depth. Here is where we look back at the work we have already done: What is the text about? What is notable about the form, and how does it support or undermine what the words say? Does the specific language of the text highlight, or redirect, certain ideas?
In this example, we are looking to determine what kind(s) of disruption the poem contains or describes. Rather than "disruption," we want to see what kind of disruption, or whether indeed Frost uses disruptions in form and language to communicate something opposite: design.
After you make notes, formulate questions, and set tentative hypotheses, you must analyze the subject of your close reading. Literary analysis is another process of reading (and writing!) that allows you to make a claim about the text. It is also the point at which you turn a critical eye to your earlier questions and observations to find the most compelling points and discard the ones that are a "stretch" or are fascinating but have no clear connection to the text as a whole. (We recommend a separate document for recording the brilliant ideas that don't quite fit this time around.)
Here follows an excerpt from a brief analysis of "Design" based on the close reading above. This example focuses on some lines in great detail in order to unpack the meaning and significance of the poem's language. By commenting on the different elements of close reading we have discussed, it takes the results of our close reading to offer one particular way into the text. (In case you were thinking about using this sample as your own, be warned: it has no thesis and it is easily discoverable on the web. Plus it doesn't have a title.)
Frost's speaker brews unlikely associations in the first stanza of the poem. The "Assorted characters of death and blight / Mixed ready to begin the morning right" make of the grotesque scene an equally grotesque mockery of a breakfast cereal (4–5). These lines are almost singsong in meter and it is easy to imagine them set to a radio jingle. A pun on "right"/"rite" slides the "characters of death and blight" into their expected concoction: a "witches' broth" (6). These juxtapositions—a healthy breakfast that is also a potion for dark magic—are borne out when our "fat and white" spider becomes "a snow-drop"—an early spring flower associated with renewal—and the moth as "dead wings carried like a paper kite" (1, 7, 8). Like the mutant heal-all that hosts the moth's death, the spider becomes a deadly flower; the harmless moth becomes a child's toy, but as "dead wings," more like a puppet made of a skull.
The volta offers no resolution for our unsettled expectations. Having observed the scene and detailed its elements in all their unpleasantness, the speaker turns to questions rather than answers. How did "The wayside blue and innocent heal-all" end up white and bleached like a bone (10)? How did its "kindred spider" find the white flower, which was its perfect hiding place (11)? Was the moth, then, also searching for camouflage, only to meet its end?
Using another question as a disguise, the speaker offers a hypothesis: "What but design of darkness to appall?" (13). This question sounds rhetorical, as though the only reason for such an unlikely combination of flora and fauna is some "design of darkness." Some force, the speaker suggests, assembled the white spider, flower, and moth to snuff out the moth's life. Such a design appalls, or horrifies. We might also consider the speaker asking what other force but dark design could use something as simple as appalling in its other sense (making pale or white) to effect death.
However, the poem does not close with a question, but with a statement. The speaker's "If design govern in a thing so small" establishes a condition for the octave's questions after the fact (14). There is no point in considering the dark design that brought together "assorted characters of death and blight" if such an event is too minor, too physically small to be the work of some force unknown. Ending on an "if" clause has the effect of rendering the poem still more uncertain in its conclusions: not only are we faced with unanswered questions, we are now not even sure those questions are valid in the first place.
Behind the speaker and the disturbing scene, we have Frost and his defiance of our expectations for a Petrarchan sonnet. Like whatever designer may have altered the flower and attracted the spider to kill the moth, the poet built his poem "wrong" with a purpose in mind. Design surely governs in a poem, however small; does Frost also have a dark design? Can we compare a scene in nature to a carefully constructed sonnet?
A Note on Organization
Your goal in a paper about literature is to communicate your best and most interesting ideas to your reader. Depending on the type of paper you have been assigned, your ideas may need to be organized in service of a thesis to which everything should link back. It is best to ask your instructor about the expectations for your paper.
Knowing how to organize these papers can be tricky, in part because there is no single right answer—only more and less effective answers. You may decide to organize your paper thematically, or by tackling each idea sequentially; you may choose to order your ideas by their importance to your argument or to the poem. If you are comparing and contrasting two texts, you might work thematically or by addressing first one text and then the other. One way to approach a text may be to start with the beginning of the novel, story, play, or poem, and work your way toward its end. For example, here is the rough structure of the example above: The author of the sample decided to use the poem itself as an organizational guide, at least for this part of the analysis.
- A paragraph about the octave.
- A paragraph about the volta.
- A paragraph about the penultimate line (13).
- A paragraph about the final line (14).
- A paragraph addressing form that suggests a transition to the next section of the paper.
You will have to decide for yourself the best way to communicate your ideas to your reader. Is it easier to follow your points when you write about each part of the text in detail before moving on? Or is your work clearer when you work through each big idea—the significance of whiteness, the effect of an altered sonnet form, and so on—sequentially?
We suggest you write your paper however is easiest for you then move things around during revision if you need to.
If you really want to master the practice of reading and writing about literature, we recommend Sylvan Barnet and William E. Cain's wonderful book, A Short Guide to Writing about Literature. Barnet and Cain offer not only definitions and descriptions of processes, but examples of explications and analyses, as well as checklists for you, the author of the paper. The Short Guide is certainly not the only available reference for writing about literature, but it is an excellent guide and reminder for new writers and veterans alike.
I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.
What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.
by Grant Wiggins, Ed.D, Authentic Education
On May 26, 2015, Grant Wiggins passed away. Grant was tremendously influential on TeachThought’s approach to education, and we were lucky enough for him to contribute his content to our site. Occasionally, we are going to go back and re-share his most memorable posts. So today and tomorrow we’re going to share two of his posts on literacy, starting with what it means to “close read.” Per his usual, Grant took a deep dive on the topic, with lots of great examples.
What is close reading? As I said in my previous blog post, whatever it is it differs from a personal response to the text.
Here is what the Common Core ELA Standards say:
Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. (p. 3)
What Close Reading Actually Means
Here is Anchor Standard 1:
Key Ideas and Details
1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. (p. 10)
Here is how Nancy Boyles in an excellent Educational Leadership article defines it: “Essentially, close reading means reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension.”
Thus, what “close reading” really means in practice is disciplined re-reading of inherently complex and worthy texts. As Tim Shanahan puts it in his helpful blog entry, “Because challenging texts do not give up their meanings easily, it is essential that readers re-read such texts,” while noting that “not all texts are worth close reading.”
The close = re-read + worthy assumption here is critical: we assume that a rich text simply cannot be understood and appreciated by a single read, no matter how skilled and motivated the reader.
The next five ELA anchor standards make this clearer: we could not possibly analyze these varied aspects of the text simultaneously:
- 2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
- 3. Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
- 4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
- 5. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
- 6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
College readiness and close reading. Since a key rationale for the Common Core Standards is college readiness, let’s have a look at how college professors define it. Here is what Penn State professor Sophia McClennen says at the start of her extremely helpful resource with tips on close reading:
“Reading closely” means developing a deep understanding and a precise interpretation of a literary passage that is based first and foremost on the words themselves. But a close reading does not stop there; rather, it embraces larger themes and ideas evoked and/or implied by the passage itself.
Here is how the Harvard Writing Center defines it:
When you close read, you observe facts and details about the text. You may focus on a particular passage, or on the text as a whole. Your aim may be to notice all striking features of the text, including rhetorical features, structural elements, cultural references; or, your aim may be to notice only selected features of the text—for instance, oppositions and correspondences, or particular historical references. Either way, making these observations constitutes the first step in the process of close reading.
The second step is interpreting your observations. What we’re basically talking about here is inductive reasoning: moving from the observation of particular facts and details to a conclusion, or interpretation, based on those observations. And, as with inductive reasoning, close reading requires careful gathering of data (your observations) and careful thinking about what these data add up to.
A University of Washington handout for students summarizes the aim of close reading as follows:
The goal of any close reading is the following:
- an ability to understand the general content of a text even when you don’t understand every word or concept in it.
- an ability to spot techniques that writers use to get their ideas and feelings across and to explain how they work.
- an ability to judge whether techniques the writer has used succeed or fail and an ability to compare and contrast the successes and failures of different writers’ techniques.
Remember—when doing a close reading, the goal is to closely analyze the material and explain why details are significant. Therefore, close reading does not try to summarize the author’s main points, rather, it focuses on “picking apart” and closely looking at the what the author makes his/her argument, why is it interesting, etc.
Here are a few of the helpful questions to consider in close reading, from the handout by Kip Wheeler, a college English professor:
II. Vocabulary and Diction:
- How do the important words relate to one another? Does a phrase here appear elsewhere in the story or poem?
- Do any words seem oddly used to you? Why? Is that a result of archaic language? Or deliberate weirdness?
- Do any words have double meanings? Triple meanings? What are all the possible ways to read it?
III. Discerning Patterns:
- How does this pattern fit into the pattern of the book as a whole?
- How could this passage symbolize something in the entire work? Could this passage serve as a microcosm, a little picture, of what’s taking place in the whole narrative or poem?
- What is the sentence rhythm like? Short and choppy? Long and flowing? Does it build on itself or stay at an even pace? How does that structure relate to the content?
- Can you identify paradoxes in the author’s thought or subject?
- What is left out or silenced? What would you expect the author to say that the author seems to have avoided or ignored? What could the author have done differently—and what’s the effect of the current choice?
Of note is that in all these college examples the focus is on close reading as a prelude to writing. This is an important heads-up for students: close reading invariably is a means to an end in college, where the aim is a carefully-argued work of original thought about the text(s). And, in fact, the second part of Anchor Standard #1 makes this link explicit: the expectation is that students will communicate the fruits of their close reading to others in written and oral forms.
Close Reading vs. Reader Response
A key assumption implicit in all these quotes as well as in the Common Core – a controversial one, perhaps – is thus what I briefly argued in the previous post: “close reading” has implicit priority over “reader response” views of the aim of literacy instruction. The reader’s primary obligation is to understand the text. That emphasis is clear from the anchor standards in the Common Core, as noted above: the goal is to understand what the author is doing and accomplishing, and what it means; the goal is not to respond personally to what the author is doing.
As I noted in my previous post, this does not mean, however, that we should ignore or try to bypass the reader’s responses, prior knowledge, or interests. On the contrary, reading cannot help but involve an inter-mingling of our experience and what the author says and perhaps means. But it does not follow from this fact that instruction should give equal weight to personal reactions to a text when the goal is close reading. On the contrary: we must constantly be alert to how and where our own prejudices (literally, pre-judging) may be interfering with meaning-making of the text.
Here is how the caution is cast in a college handout on close reading for students:
One word of caution: context needs to be examined with care. Don’t assume that the context of your own class or gender or culture is informing you correctly. Read context as actively and as rigorously as you read text!
This is especially true when reading rich, unusual, and controversial writings. Our job is to suspend judgment as we read – and be wary of projecting our own prior experience.
Let me offer one of my favorite sections of text to illustrate the point – two early sections from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:
SUPPOSING that Truth is a woman–what then? Is there not ground for suspecting that all philosophers, in so far as they have been dogmatists, have failed to understand women–that the terrible seriousness and clumsy importunity with which they have usually paid their addresses to Truth, have been unskilled and unseemly methods for winning a woman?…
5. That which causes philosophers to be regarded half-distrustfully and half-mockingly, is not the oft-repeated discovery how innocent they are–how often and easily they make mistakes and lose their way, in short, how childish and childlike they are,–but that there is not enough honest dealing with them, whereas they all raise a loud and virtuous outcry when the problem of truthfulness is even hinted at in the remotest manner. They all pose as though their real opinions had been discovered and attained through the self-evolving of a cold, pure, divinely indifferent dialectic (in contrast to all sorts of mystics, who, fairer and foolisher, talk of “inspiration”), whereas, in fact, a prejudiced proposition, idea, or “suggestion,” which is generally their heart’s desire abstracted and refined, is defended by them with arguments sought out after the event. They are all advocates who do not wish to be regarded as such, generally astute defenders, also, of their prejudices, which they dub “truths,”–and VERY far from having the conscience which bravely admits this to itself, very far from having the good taste of the courage which goes so far as to let this be understood, perhaps to warn friend or foe, or in cheerful confidence and self-ridicule.
This is a classic close reading challenge: one has to read and re-read to make sense of things – even though all the words are familiar. And one has to put many prejudices and associations aside – about august philosophers, about scholarship, about “reason,” about truth and our motives in seeking it, about manhood! – to understand and appreciate what Nietzsche is driving at.
Oh, C’mon Grant: I Teach Little Kids
No matter. The same close reading needs to be done with every Frog and Toad story. Let’s consider my favorite, “Spring.” Frog wants Toad to wake up from hibernation to play on a nice April spring day. Toad resists all entreaties to wake up and play. The climax of the story comes here:
“But, Toad,” cried Frog, “you will miss all the fun!”
“Listen, Frog” said Toad. “How long have I been asleep?”
“You have been asleep since November,” said Frog.
“Well then,” said Toad, “a little more sleep will not hurt me. Come back again and wake me up at about half past May. Good night, Frog.”
“But, Toad,’ said Frog, “I will be lonely until then.”
Toad did not answer. He had fallen asleep.
Frog looked at Toad’s calendar. The November page was still on top.
Frog tore off the November page.
He tore off the December page.
And the January page, the February page, and the March page.
He came to the April page. Frog tore off the April page too.
Then Frog ran back to Toad’s bed. “Toad, Toad, wake up. It is May now.”
“What?” said Toad. “Can it be May so soon?
“Yes,” said Frog. “Look at your calendar.”
Toad looked at the calendar. The May page was on top.
“Why, it is May!” said Toad as he climbed out of bed.
Then he and Frog ran outside to see how the world was looking in the Spring.
All sorts of interesting questions can re raised here – all of which demand a close (re-) reading:
- Why did Frog try to wake Toad? How selfish or selfless was he being?
- How did Frog eventually get Toad to get up? Why did he do that (i.e. trick him)?
- Why didn’t the other attempts work to rouse Toad?
- What convinced Toad? Why did it convince him?
- Is Frog being a good friend here? Is Toad? (The title of the book, of course, isFrog and Toad Are Friends).
Notice that we could ask the following reader-response-like questions:
A. Have you ever been tricked like that, or tricked someone else? Why did you trick them or they trick you?
B. Do real friends trick friends? Is Frog really being a good friend here?
From my vantage point, however, in light of what we have said so far, the first question pair is less fruitful to consider – less ‘close’ – than the second pair. The first pair takes you away from the text; the second pair takes you right back to the text for a closer read.
The Openness Required In Close Reading
Close reading, then, requires openness to being taught. Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren in their seminal text How To Read A Book make this issue of openness quite explicit at the outset. When the goal is understanding (instead of enjoyment or information only), we must assume that there is something the writer grasps that we do not:
The writer is communicating something that can increase the reader’s understanding… What are the conditions under which this kind of reading – reading for understanding –takes place? There are two. First, there is an initial inequality in understanding. The writer must be “superior” to the reader in understanding…second, the reader must be able to overcome this inequality in some degree…To the extent that this equality is approached, clarity of communication is achieved.
In short, we can only learn from our “betters.” We must know who they are and how to learn from them. The person who possesses this sort of knowledge possesses the art of reading.
The essence of such open reading is active questioning of the text. As the authors say, the “one simple prescription is… Ask questions while you read – questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading.”
Here are the four questions at the heart of the book:
What is the book about as a whole? You must try to discover the leading theme of the book, and how the author develops this theme in an orderly way…
What is being said in detail, and how? You must try to discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author’s particular message.
Is the book true, in whole or in part? You cannot answer this question until you have answered the first two. You have to know what is being said before you can decide whether it is true or not. When you understand a book, however, you are obligated to make up your own mind. Knowing the author’s mind is not enough.
What of it? If the book has given you information, you must ask about its significance. Why does the author think it is important to know these things? Is it important to you to know them?
Note the caution: you shouldn’t jump to judging the merit or significance of the work before understanding it – a maxim of close reading.
The bulk of the book describes dozens of practical tips, with examples, for how to annotate texts and develop better habits of active reading in pursuit of the answers to these reader questions. I can heartily recommend How To Read a Book as one the best resources ever written for learning close reading. Hard to argue with the facts: written in 1940 and a longtime best-seller, it has had over 30 printings and is still used today.
Most importantly, to yours truly, How To Read a Book taught me how to read properly. It was in a brief skim of Adler’s book, while lounging in a friend’s dorm room when I was a junior at St. John’s College – the Great Books school – that I realized with a terrible shock that I had never really learned how to read actively and carefully up until that moment. The book changed my life: I became more skilled, confident, and willing as a reader; I went into teaching in part motivated by the simple yet powerful lessons taught me about the joys of reading and thinking in the book.
What St. John’s also taught me is the power of so-called Socratic Seminar – the way all of our classes were run – for learning close reading. Indeed, that’s all a good seminar is: a shared close reading of a complex text in which students propose emerging understandings, supported by textual evidence, with occasional reminders and re-direction by teacher-facilitators.
So, ELA and English teachers – and history, math, art, and science teachers too: let’s teach kids the joys that come from discerning the richness in a great text, be it Frog and Toad, Plato’s Apology, Euclid’s Elements, or Picasso’s Guernica. I think you’ll be surprised how much a wise text can teach and reach even the most unruly kid – and, in the end, make them feel wiser, too.
This post first appeared on Grant’s personal blog; image attribution flickr users katerha and deepcwind