This book was originally written (in 1997) in response to curriculum changes which have called upon students to engage in the close reading of texts and, especially for senior secondary students, the close reading of literary texts.
One of my aims in writing this book has been to problematise the very language that curriculum documents are written in. It seems to me to be a worthwhile exercise to ask and, indeed, to have our students ask such questions as:
- What do we mean by close reading?
- What do we mean when we say that a text means?
- What is a text and
- What makes it literary?
Particularly in the first two chapters of the book, I have concentrated on these big questions, in part because they are interesting, in part because we owe it to our students to be honest about the debate that surrounds them.
While I have problematised some of these terms, I have also had to be up front about my own position on a number of matters. Here are some of my positions which inform this book. I believe that:
- The meaning of a text depends on the way it is questioned.
- A text and its cultural context illuminate one another.
- A text and the cultural context of its reader also illuminate one another.
- Poems and trees can be beautiful in their own ways.
- Texts can function in all sorts of different ways.
- We continually make and remake the world through language…but maybe language isn’t the end of it.
In short, close reading is a complex business. At a time when teachers may be tempted to think that they can assess students’ reading competence in terms of the result of a few summative tests, we should remind ourselves of how much there is to know before certain textual meanings reveal themselves.
The hardest task in writing this book has been to pare down the material into a size commensurate with the publisher’s brief. If the oxymoron is your favourite figure of speech, you will find its omission here unforgivable. So be it. This preface will be cold comfort to you.
How might this book be used? The first two chapters are designed to lead students gently into a consideration of some of the big issues about reading, interpretation, texts, literature and genre. Chapters three and four are on short literary forms. They can be used independently of additional classroom resources since exemplary texts are reproduced within the context of each of these chapters.
I have written chapters five and six, on the play and the novel, in such a way that they can provide a focus for students, irrespective of the play or novel being studied in class. However, I have used well known plays and novels to raise broad questions about the nature of these genres.
Finally, the focus in this book has been on guiding students into modes of questioning. Sometimes this questioning occurs in individual situations, at other times it takes place within the context of a discussion group. The latter is particularly true of exercises where a number of broad and even contentious issues have been raised.
I have also included a number of exercises that demand an engagement in writing and research. There is a reason for this also. The tradition of close reading I was brought up in, shaped as it was by the New Criticism, encouraged a text to be viewed as isolated from the cultural context of either writer or reader. New approaches to reading simply don’t allow texts to be isolated in this way. In fact, our task as teachers is to enable students to relatetexts to contexts as a way of widening the sorts of meanings we can take from them. That, in turn, means an onus on students’ developing the means of finding out about these contexts. Suddenly inquiry has become central to the critical reading process.