Close reading is an important tool for writing an essay and doesn't have to be as overwhelming as it sounds. Here are some tips to make it easy and effective.
When do I close read?
Obviously, it's impractical to close read an entire book. Unless your material is fairly short, close read the parts which address an aspect of your essay or assignment. Doing so will help you understand the subtleties in the passage that will help you add analysis to your paper. If you are reading through a book, article, etc. for the first time, you should take small notes as you read instead of a close analysis. This can include noting important passages, passages you don't understand, and passages which might be helpful for a future assignment. Some people like to summarize chapters or pages, so that they don't have to reread material later. This type of quick close reading helps you to understand the material better. It takes a lot less time than it sounds like it does!
How do I close read?
Once you have found a quote to close read, look for what the author's message is, and how she/he gets that message across to readers (you). The first step is to make sure you understand what is going on: if you have questions, get them answered because the wrong idea here can alter your whole close reading. Next, find:
Themes: repeating ideas discussed in the passage, such as individuality, friendship, etc.
Symbols: one noun standing for another person, place, concept, etc.
Audience: who is the speaker addressing? It can be character(s) in the novel as well as a group of people whom the author wants to read her book.
Tone: the emotional perspective the speaker gives to the passage, always an adjective. Often, the diction and syntax can help you find the tone. Examples are confused, overwhelmed, formal, etc.
Syntax: the sentence structure. The length, level, etc. can change the tone and give you some important clues into the message of the quote.
Diction: the words the author chose. Different words have small differences in meaning, and can bring to mind different settings and atmospheres--this is called connotation.
Speaker: who is actually talking to you in this passage, the narrator. How does the speaker's position, background, etc. affect what she says?
All of these terms will not necessarily be in your quote. Also, they are by no means the only things you can look for while close reading, but they are a good start. These different devices are used by the author to address the two important aspects of close reading underlined above. Look for how a device is used and ask yourself why it is used this way and how it connects to the author's message or what it does for the quote as a whole.
"Our house stood within a few rods of the Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe. Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition. I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer's Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of the noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean. The sight of these always affected me powerfully. My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul's complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships. . . ."
--from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass, p.71. Downloaded August 18, 2011, from Forgotten Books.
Questions for Close Reading
1. Again, summarize the speaker's literal meaning and any themes you see.
2. Imagery, pictures painted by the speaker's words, plays a big role in this passage. What aspects of the imagery are symbols, and what do they stand for? How do the symbols further the themes you found?
3. Who is the speaker, and who is the audience? Can you find different perspectives mentioned here? Why would the speaker include this? How do diction and syntax, or any other aspects of the excerpt that you notice, create the perspectives?
Student Learning Center, University of California, Berkeley
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