Colleen, Erica and I are about to wrap up the manuscript of Reading Reconsidered. One of the most important chapters in it is about Close Reading which, we note, has become an urgent clarion call but remains relatively poorly defined… except here we hope.
In the excerpt below, we discuss one of the key tasks of Close Reading: Establishing Meaning. In the next, we’ll discuss some of the text dependent questions you might use in this task.
On Establishing Meaning
Too often, conversations about literature–from the elementary to the college level–are “gist” conversations wherein students understand a text at a broad and general level and commence to provide opinions about it despite an incomplete understanding of it. A teacher might assume, for example, that if students understand the main idea of a text, they know the text comprehensively, but of course this is not true. There is much more to a text than a pithy statement of its gist. Sometimes, in fact, such a “gist phrase” can crowd out reading:
Teacher: What is Shakespeare saying about love in the sonnet?
Student: That it doesn’t last.
Teacher: Can anyone develop that?
Student: It’s like a flower. It blooms and then fades
Teacher: Yes, love, to Shakespeare, is fleeting like flower. Do you agree?
A discussion about the idea of love being fleeting then ensues. This represents an easy short cut compared to the messy work of unpacking a thicket of signifiers, of understanding the nature of love’s temporality as expressed in sonnet #5 and how the argument changes throughout the course of the poem. The broader discussion is not entirely without value, but unless it starts with a deep understanding of the specifics of what Shakespeare really said—all of it—rather than some generalized proxy for it—the discussion is not an exercise in reading. It is a substitute activity, a philosophical discussion about issues raised in a text that competes with actually reading the text carefully for time and energy in the classroom. This isn’t to say you can never do it; but such discussions don’t generally teach students to read deeply.
Close Reading starts with Establishing Meaning via sustained and methodical attention to what the text says, a task that can be immensely challenging—and immensely worthwhile in a variety of often overlooked ways. Consider for a moment how rigorous it can be to simply paraphrase a rich and complex passage from a work of literature. Take this one, for example, from To Kill a Mockingbird, which Maggie Johnson close read with her eighth graders in a recent lesson. The narrator, of course, is Scout Finch:
Somewhere, I had received the impression that Fine Folks were people who did the best they could with the sense they had, but Aunt Alexandra was of the opinion, obliquely expressed, that the longer a family had been squatting on one patch of land the finer it was.
A paraphrase, remember, is different from a summary. It is a restatement of the sentence in simpler and clarified terms that still capture all of the explicit meaning and as much of the connotation as possible. “Scout is reflecting on her interpretation of how class was determined, in contrast to that of her Aunt Alexandra ….” is not a paraphrase but rather a description of the passage. A paraphrase would be written in the first person and take on Scout’s point of view. It might start: “Somehow, I had come to believe that respectable people were…”
Paraphrase Versus Summary
There are a lot of ideas in that one little sentence: They are interwoven and complex. They relate to the important themes in the book. Just unwinding them all is challenging. There is Aunt Alexandra’s belief that status is conferred by heredity and the implicit connection of that issue to race and class and that fact that Aunt Alexandra would never just come out and say what she felt (i.e. ‘expressed her feelings obliquely’).
After paraphrasing, perhaps students could analyze Aunt Alexandra’s ‘obliqueness’—was she being, as she might have put it, tactful and ‘ladylike’ or was her obliqueness actually a means of quietly reinforcing the messy work of the racial caste system—to speak in code to remind those who ascribed to her set of beliefs of their importance while keeping those same beliefs invisible to others who might be angered by or, like Scout, not understand them? Answering that question would fall in the next step of a Close Reading lesson: analyzing meaning. But before they do that, students would first need to understand what it means to express an opinion obliquely and what opinions about class Alexandra expressed in this manner. They would need to understand how Harper Lee used low, unpolished diction (“squatting”) to describe the fundamental premise of Alexandra’s world view, to subtly mock it. You cannot truly analyze meaning that is, unless you can also diligently first establish it.
And the synergies between Establishing Meaning and analyzing it run even deeper. Establishing Meaning often identifies key issues worthy of analysis. Imagine how you could push students into analysis once they’d captured the overall meaning of our sentence from To Kill a Mockingbird, for example
Q: Why is Fine Folks is capitalized in these lines.
A: Maybe it’s a common phrase that gets said all the time around Scout?
Q: By whom?
A: By the people Scout most often hears talking, people like Alexandra, white people of middle-to-upper status?
Q: Why might they say it all the time?
A: [Eventually with a bit of discussion or during some writing] It was capitalized because, like Democracy, which is also sometimes capitalized, it is a proper noun in people’s minds. That is, it was deeply enshrined in the belief systems of the South.
Q: “So, given our discussion, why would Lee capitalize these words in the text? What message is she conveying?”
Paraphrasing might seem to some like the most straightforward and mundane of activities, banal, even. But as this line from To Kill a Mockingbird shows, paraphrase of a worthy segment of complex text is a rigorous task. As an aside, it is both the mark of TKAM’s worthiness that it responds to Close Reading and a reminder that trying to close read with insufficiently complex text is not a recipe for success. The rigor and value of Establishing Meaning correlates to the rigor and value of the text. Perhaps for this reason we’ve seen teachers at Uncommon spend a few minutes on Establishing Meaning in some cases and split Close Reading lessons across two days, just to give Establishing Meaning its due in others. As a general rule, though, Establishing Meaning is more likely to be overlooked than overindulged.