Close Reading

What is it? No, close reading doesn't involve holding the book an inch and a half from your eyes. It's a method of paying close attention to details in a piece of literature, and systematically explaining what you find. If you've ever taken a flm or art history class, you'll probably notice that close reading is similar to the visual analysis used there: it just deals with words instead of images. It also has certain similarities to scientific observation, in spite of obvious differences in the things you're looking at and the conventional ways of communicating what you see.

Most of the e-mail responses in this class, particularly the ones in the first part of the semester, will require you to do close reading; class discussion and the essays will also build on close reading skills. So, how do you do it? A good way to start is with the six classic journalist's questions: Who's doing or saying something? What are they doing or saying, and what's happening around them? When are they doing or saying it? Where? Why? How? We'll also be interested in an additional question: What's the effect of all this on you as a reader? Take notes as you read, thinking about these questions. Just as importantly, take notes about things that confuse you or seem unusual. You certainly don't have to have definitive answers or notice everything about a work. In many cases, definitive answers are impossible, and noticing everything is definitely impossible. Besides, readings and class discussions (not to mention papers, which we'll discuss later) are quite a bit more interesting if everyone is not saying the same thing!

Here's an example of a close reading of the first few stanzas of Langston Hughes' "Ballad of the Landlord". (Hughes was a black American poet who lived from 1902-1967.) It's longer than most of the ones we'll be doing, but you'll probably get the idea.
Ballad of the Landlord Landlord, landlord,My roof has sprung a leak.Don't you 'member I told you about itWay last week?Landlord, landlord,These steps is broken down.When you come up yourselIt's a wonder you don't fall down.Ten Bucks you say I owe you?Ten Bucks you say is due?Well, that's Ten Bucks more'n I'll pay youTill you fix this house up new.What? You gonna get eviction orders?You gonna cut off my heat?You gonna take my furniture andThrow it in the street?Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.Talk on—till you get through.You ain't gonna be able to say a wordIf I land my fist on you.Police! Police!Come and get this man!He 's trying to ruin the governmentAnd overturn the landCopper's whistle!Patrol bell!Arrest.Precinct Station.Iron cell.Headlines in press:MAN THREATENS LANDLORDTENANT HELD NO BAILJUDGE GIVES NEGRO 90 DAYS IN COUNTY JAIL
"The main voice in the poem is that of the tenant, who, as the last line tells us, is black. The tenant is characterized by his informal, nonstandard speech. He uses slang ("Ten Bucks"), contracted words ('member, more'n), and nonstandard grammar ("These steps is broken down"). This colloquial English suggests the tenant's separation from the world of convention, represented by the formal voices of the police and the press, which appear later in the poem.

Although the tenant uses nonstandard English, his argument is organized and logical. He begins with a reasonable complaint and a gentle reminder that the complaint is already a week old: "My roof has sprung a leak. / Don't you 'member I told you about it / Way last week?" (2~). In the second stanza, he appeals diplomatically to the landlord's self-interest: "These steps is broken down. / When you come up yourself/ It's a wonder you don't fall down" (6-8). In the third stanza, when the landlord has responded to his complaints with a demand for rent money, the tenant becomes more forceful, but his voice is still reasonable: "Ten Bucks you say is due? / Well, that's ten bucks more than I'll pay you / Till you fix this house up new" (10-12).

The fourth stanza marks a shift in the tone of the argument. At this point the tenant responds more emotionally to the landlord's threat to evict him. By the fifth stanza, the tenant has unleashed his anger: "Um-huh! You talking high and mighty" (17). Hughes uses an exclamation point for the first time; the tenant is raising his voice at last. As the argument gets more heated, the tenant finally resorts to the language of violence: "You ain't gonna be able to say a word / If I land my fist on you" (19-20).  These are the last words the tenant speaks in the poem. Perhaps Hughes wants to show how black people who threaten violence are silenced."

(from Diana Hacker, Bedford Handbook for Writers, 5th edition, p. 663-667)