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Close Reading

What's it all about?

Sean McGlade

on 26 January 2014

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Transcript of Close Reading


What is it and why do we do it?
Close reading is when we slow down, pause, and think about the specific language used in a text.

It allows us to focus not just on
is said, but on
it is said.
But meaning is a tricky thing. It involves both what the writer intends and what the reader sees. Sometimes these are the same, sometimes not.
Why do we do it?

We are so used to reading fast that we often miss the nuances and subtleties of meaning so important to literature. Texts are full of assumptions and ideas that can be explored, critiqued, and analyzed-- but only if you uncover them first!

For our initial purposes, close reading will help us get beyond
and generate
The better your close reading, the better your writing will be.
Let's look at a passage from City of Glass to see how it works:
[Quinn] cleared the debris from the surface of his desk-- dead matches, cigarette butts, eddies of ash, spent ink cartridges, a few coins, ticket stubs, doodles, a dirty handkerchief-- and put the red notebook in the center. Then he drew the shades in the room, took off all his clothes, and sat down at the desk. He had never done this before, but it somehow seemed appropriate to be naked at this moment.
"Quinn cleared the debris from the surface of the desk."
"debris" stands out to me, so I'm going to think about it a bit.

= pieces of something destroyed, junk, garbage

: well, something becomes junk only when you don't have a use for it anymore. And debris is often produced by some kind of activity or action. No idea where this is taking me right now. But let me see what this debris consists of...
dead matches
= why "dead"? Why not "used" matches? No life or "spark" or flame left?

: you can't get anything out of these anymore. Matches create fire. Fire is sometimes connected with creativity, or knowledge, or enlightenment, or even life. So maybe the word "dead" suggests there's something here about being "burnt out" or dead intellectually or creatively...Is this a stretch? Maybe. I'll see how it plays out.
cigarette butts
= again, something used up, literally "burnt up." Just remnants of something larger.

I don't know if smoking is important here or not. It's a habit for some, even an addiction. And you always see smoking in detective novels. Maybe they've helped him to think, or de-stress in the past? Don't want to push too hard here. Feelin nerdy.
But now I'm starting to notice a pattern among the "debris":

eddies of ash"
= ash is something that has been burned up and is a leftover, an indicator of something gone or spent.
spent" ink cartridges
= have been used, no ink or "fuel" left
ticket stubs"
= again, used up tickets. no good for admission to an event anymore. just memories, souvenirs.

Don't rely on me anymore. You do it. What are ink cartridges used for? So what? Can you make anything of the ash or the ticket stubs?

With this in mind, let's reread the passage...
not sure if they fit into this pattern. seems pretty common. hmmm. but maybe they are change from a transaction, the leftover part of a dollar. so maybe they are remnants after all...
now for a few that seem a bit out of place:
= I don't know. these are like idle, half-conscious drawings. things you make when daydreaming or bored in class. maybe they are like debris of the mind? discarded ideas or thoughts? i'm not fully satisfied with this so maybe i'll let it go or return to it later.
dirty handkerchief=
gross. gross because it's been used. so it's actually like some of the other pieces here, except that it could be reused if washed. not sure if that matters or not. nothing else here can be recycled or made new again, except for this handkerchief. Or maybe the coins?
Now that I've got all this stuff about used up, wasted material, I think I can kind of apply it to Quinn too, who is used up, spent, and kind of a shell of his former self. And with this in mind, the next part takes on some interesting potential:
Yeah, I know. Trust me, we'll get to this in a minute. But first let's go through the passage slowly and examine some of the earlier language choices....(what a tease, huh?)
Ok, and all these things are being
from the desk, wiped away. Do these details we've investigated matter? Do they allow us to think about the significance of this "clearing" action?

I also notice that he replaces all this debris with a
red notebook
that he centers on the table.
Why a
notebook? Is this color significant?

And why a notebook? I assume so he can write in it.
It's an empty notebook too, I think. So unlike the debris he has just cleared, this is something blank, unused, and fresh. A place where he can maybe create something new?

What new thing could he be creating? Some plot context will help with this, but I also wonder if the notebook somehow relates to a fresh start for a Quinn, a new beginning? Can writing be a way of starting something new in one's life?

Is this naked page connected to the nudity Quinn feels is appropriate in this moment? Lots of questions arise for me here, and not a lot of answers. But I'll keep these in mind as I move forward.
Now we can get to the good stuff-- he takes off all his clothes. Quinn feels it is appropriate to be naked. This may still seem strange to us, but now maybe we can think about the significance of his nakedness here.

What do I associate with nakedness?

sexy, liberated, vulnerable, innocent, pure, infant-like, cold, etc...

Ok, so now how should we think of taking off clothes? Can he be removing more than simply articles of dress?

Is there any relationship between removing clothes and clearing the desk? Or between the blank pages of the notebook and his unadorned body? Is Quinn reverting to some childlike state of innocence?

Does Quinn seem to understand why he is doing this?

Or is he still just a strange, quirky dude?
When we put all these individual pieces together and reread the moment, what have we got? Have we
discovered an idea
, an

, or a
question to pursue
as we read more?

Quinn's nudity may still be odd (which is fine, because strangeness is what drew us to the passage in the first place).

But when read closely this act of clearing the table and then undressing can also give us some insight into Quinn and the significance of this moment (notice I'm not telling you what that could be-- what do you think it is?).

And because this insight has been produced by close reading and analysis, it means you can make an argument about it that you can support based on textual evidence.
Quick summary:
This guy Quinn clears a lot of crap off his desk and then gets naked.

Quick analysis:
Quinn is weird, and possibly kinky.

Not wrong, but pretty obvious, right?

Let's see if we can develop a little more insight through close reading. What language should we focus on first?
So what's the best way to take notes and do close reading? I suggest using a "dialogic journal."
I don't care if you remember what it's called. But it works like this:
Got it?
Now let's review this process so you can do it on your own and see how it helps you develop your ideas.

1) Identify a moment in the text you think is interesting.
Remember, "interesting" can mean strange, weird, wonderful, puzzling, contradictory, anomalous, etc...
2) Read the moment several times.

3) Break the passage down and take notes by using a dialogic journal.
4) Read over your notes. Add up all the pieces, looking for patterns, ideas, and questions that can be applied to the text.

5) Reread the moment, keeping its context in mind.

6) Try to add it all up. Ask, what can I now say about this moment that I could not have before?

Write this insight/question/idea down!!
Do "coins" and "doodles" fit into this at all?
Why or why not? Do they support what we've
seen so far? Do they add anything new to how
we're thinking about this debris?

For starters:
What kind of thinking is connected to
doodles? How do coins relate to bills?
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