The Education of a Close Reader, Part II

| September 20, 2010

Continued from Previous Post: The Education of a Close Reader, Part I

My sixth and eighth grade English teachers were unabashed grammar mavens, united in their quest to resolve pronominal disagreements and to untangle all the world’s misplaced modifiers. Indirectly, their teaching whet my emerging appetite for close reading. At the beginning of each class, they would place a “writing error” on the blackboard and demand that the students repair the damaged sentence. I became attuned to pronoun choices, verb tenses, punctuation—developing a rhetorical toolbox that would become indispensable later on—when I studied the inflections and innuendos of difficult poetry. More importantly, though, the writing errors heightened my sensitivity to language; they honed my ability to decipher sentences and to manipulate words. I discovered in grammar what a young Helen Vendler found in chemistry—a sense of structures and their beauty.

In high school, my teachers showed me how to trace verbal patterns through a text, to craft a more sophisticated argument, to strive for originality. A three-page paper, I began to feel, could hardly begin to explicate three words, much less analyze a theme across an entire novel. And so my literary essays ballooned to two, three, four times the suggested length. By the time I was in tenth grade, I was writing ten, fifteen, twenty-five page papers—driving myself to exhaustion. And this time around (to the horror of my teachers), I was not using size 18 Helvetica font.

Close reading, though, can be a lonely occupation. As an adolescent, I spent many days with my head bent deep into a book, muscles clenched, oblivious to external excitements, lost in a labyrinth of my own ruminations. I was baffled by teenage chatter, gossip, text messages. Corridor conversations moved too quickly for my “close readings” to keep up with them.

In spite of my social confusion, my passion for language and literature catapulted me to the English Department at Yale University, long known as the mecca of close reading—home to Cleanth Brooks and Red Warren, Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom. English 125, the prerequisite to the major and the flagship course of the department, is essentially a seminar in the close reading of British poetry. At the seminar table, I was apt to take account of every word in a line of poetry—every article, preposition, pronoun and punctuation mark. What is the difference, I might ask, between the phrases “like a god” and “as a god”? (The former appears in Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude; the poet adjusts his simile in the 1850 revision.) I was trained to read in the Yale tradition, but in many ways I was already pre-disposed to it.

In high school, I had stumbled onto the stage and, unexpectedly, loved it there, entranced by acting as a way of close reading on one’s feet, interpreting a text by translating it from page to stage. I carried my tentative interest in drama to Yale’s legendary theater community, where I was outclassed in my talent but not in my persistence. Unlike solitary reading, I found, actors must be aware of their relationship to their cast-mates and (less directly) to their audiences. Readings are not produced in a vacuum but rather by a team, for a wider community. Textual analysis is important, but so are listening, openness, vulnerability—awareness of life outside the mind.

I owe my relatively recent interest in the ethics of reading partly to my work as an actor, and partly to the teaching of Leslie Brisman. An ethical reading is, to my way of thinking, a responsible reading—one that marvels at the magic of a literary work before it makes rash, reckless claims. To the extent that I have become an ethical reader, I try to be wary of my imaginative excesses, to weigh options judiciously and admit mistakes. An ethical reader is also concerned, in Foucaldian terms, with the relation of self to self: How does my reading affect the way I understand myself? The way I lead my life? And so ethical readers, I think, are also conscious of their place in the world, their relation with living, breathing human beings.

I have a long-standing interest in the acts of reading and writing that take place within novels—in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, for example. This summer, I arrived at Teachers College wanting to delve more deeply into the processes of reading and writing, as experienced not only by literary characters but also by real people. I am excited by the opportunity to observe emerging readers of all ages—and, when appropriate, to intervene in their reading, drawing them more closely into the texts they encounter.

As a teacher of English, I hope to continue my own journey as a reader, as I help my students move toward an ethics and aesthetics of reading. That phrase is a mouthful; let me try my hand at a close reading of it. “Move”: I’m fascinated by the motion of reading—the speed at which our eyes move across the page, the illusion that we can traverse great distances when we are merely turning sheets of paper. “To be moved” also highlights the emotional stakes of reading. A novel can move us to tears, and, occasionally, to action. “Toward”: Whereas “to” emphasizes a destination, “toward” suggests that one is venturing to a particular place but perhaps never arriving there. For me, the voyage of the reader centers more on the quest than on the finish line. “An”: I choose the indefinite article because I believe that modes of reading are intensely personal; what constitutes an “ethics and aesthetics of reading” may not be generalizable from one person to the next.

“Ethics”: A sense of responsibility to the text, to oneself, to the world; see my reflections on the “ethical reader” above. “And”: What initially seems the most self-explanatory word in the phrase in fact may be the most difficult. How does one bridge the gap between ethics and aesthetics, between sensitivity to human beings outside of a text and sensitivity to verbal artistry? “Aesthetics”: inherent in the beauty of art seems to me the necessity of close reading. As Cleanth Brooks writes, the poem is a well-wrought urn, and the smallest engraving (or possible crack) deserves our attention.  But the “aesthetic” (linked etymologically to “taste”) also has an evaluative component; it encompasses the capacity for critical judgment.  While “taste” can be informed by analysis, it also can be visceral, instinctual, defying explanation. “Close” reading may mean “microscopic” reading, but it can also mean “intimate” reading—a textual interaction marked by affection, familiarity and generosity. “Of”: The preposition suggests an idea that might not be taken for granted—that reading has its own “ethics and aesthetics.” Reading becomes a form of art, a way of living, more than a passive entertainment. “Reading”: I can hardly hope to explicate the verb “to read,” the crux of this essay, so I’ll focus instead on the suffix. The gerund emphasizes that reading is an ongoing process, a cyclic musing, an engagement that ought not be aborted prematurely.

I believe, idealistically, that the world is a text to read, and our lives are texts to compose. And these texts, I would argue, demand careful, attentive, sensitive reading to make sense of them. I would not want to advocate myopic reading—reading so hermetic and self-involving that one loses sight of the truth or turns away from life beyond the book’s covers. I have been guilty of that kind of reading before—victim of its addictive, paralytic pleasures. And so I’ll end with my latest credo of reading, half-plagiarized from Keats’s “Ode to Psyche,” a mantra that I—the relentlessly close reader—offer to myself: Go ahead, enshrine a text in a temple of the brain; absorb all the pleasure shadowy thought can win. Read and re-read there, pages illumined by imagination’s bright torch. But leave a window to the outside open all the while—to let the warmth of the world come in.