“These readings are close, Dougal. Those readings are far away.”

For academics, teachers and students of English Literature, I think questioning the nature of their main activity – reading texts – is pretty central to the practice itself. I don’t raise this in order to restate the notion that the humanities are in ‘crisis’ (see Paul Jay’s book or this Times Higher Ed piece) but rather to articulate the strange “wood for the trees” moment provided by Barbara Hernstein Smith’s excellent talk-turned-paper “What Was Close Reading? A Century of Method in Literary Studies”. It helps us to consider how we might be said to take close reading for granted as a practice, especially in the secondary school classroom, seeing it as a kind of a priori thing to do, without really understanding the ideological – and pedagogical – drives behind this particular method.

‘Method’ is a word that’s been knocking around my head a lot lately. I’ve been trying to think about clarifying the methodology for my PhD. I’m not a social scientist, nor am I gathering any data as such – I read. I’m tempted to put down that I’m adhering to the obvious practice of reading the texts and then writing about them (this kind of petulant response might be a version of RTFM) but this isn’t doesn’t demonstrate an understanding that every reading has an ethical or ideological structure to it, which drives the type of interpretation we come to. Even the choice to close read something stems from a particular way of thinking about the value of a literary text.

Smith’s piece outlines the context from which close reading evolved, that being the classrooms of New Criticism. What’s interesting is that it stems from a pedagogical needs to establish a mode of viewing a literary text which will enable students to interact with it productively. Experienced English teachers will know the feeling of trying to get students to view a text in the right way, and might be a little affronted by the idea there are other ways to support interpretation which aren’t simply close readings. But is this all we do as part of our varied levels of criticism? Smith identifies that part of the problem with viewing this method in isolation is that it ignores a lot of the other cultural material we make use of when writing criticism. It also suggests a kind of automatic aestheticism, a “reverse engineering” as it is referred to in the paper, although arguably this method can always be put the service of any kind of reading.

Part of the need to readdress the issue of close reading is, as Smith suggests, to do with the phenomenon of distant reading in the digital humanities. This suggests that examining patterns in large number of texts using computational or algorithmic methods can demonstrate things which a traditional close reading can’t, and that to stick with the former method is maintain a practice that is outdated. While the example from Franco Morreti is certainly interesting, the idea that distant reading should replace or usurp close reading misunderstands the nature of literary criticism, and subordinates the object of study itself.

I can see the use of a digital approach to literary scholarship – we use networks, search tools and digital archives as ways of making our research a smoother process, as well as allowing us the capacity to make new connections. But Smith hits the nail on the head when she identifies that any question around the value of close reading is a question about the essential value of literary criticism:

the grounding in personal observation and experience opens the possibility of shareable insights and of connection to shareable experiences, which—largely, if not wholly–is what motivates our interest in a literary interpretation as such. And, along with connections to broader intellectual issues and other concerns, that grounding and that attendant possibility—of shareable insights and of connection to shareable experiences—are also what sustain the value of much historical and theoretical research in the humanities as such.

Arguably, the notion of “shareable insights” relies on the kind of personal interaction with the text that close reading promotes – without close reading, we limit ourselves to the sole position of digital historians of literary texts. Why not augment close reading through the synthesis of ‘big data’ approaches with personal interpretation? I don’t doubt that this is happening already.

Further to this, Smith confirms the idea that close reading defines the discipline, because of the desire for this kind of reading to be carried out which is found in all those involved with the practice reading and writing:

[the] ability and disposition also remains more generally crucial. The hope of receiving such reading is what keeps most of us scholars and researchers as well as poets and novelists writing.

Although there are firm arguments for the value of close reading, Smith’s paper does demonstrate that it is important to critically evaluate the modes of inquiry we use to interpret – even those which seem to be utterly at the heart of the practice in the first place.