Virtues of Close Reading

I have often felt at odds with my scholarly friends whose work displays an uncanny mastery of high theory and specialized philosophical and critical vocabularies. All my scholar friends are radical and aim to challenge the normative structures of power. But, somehow, when I read their works, I find my own work quite simplistic. One reason for this feeling is that I rely heavily on close readings of the texts.

Having read Edward Said’s posthumously published book, Humanism and Democratic Criticism, I now find it easier to engage in the practice of close reading. What Said terms a “philological mode” of interpretation is essentially a method involving a detailed attention to the language of the text. Said even goes as far as to suggest that we could, and should, track the author’s intention by looking at the choices of words made by the author. Obviously, This goes against the poststructuralist and antihumanistic trends in my field of study. But I agree with Said, for if the texts and their producers and consumers are worldly, then we must also take into account possibilities of willed action against the backdrop of an all encompassing determinism.

From a pedagogical perspective, I find close readings useful in another important way; I find it useful in reaching the students who might otherwise be opposed to the politics of the text. A close reading of a well-crafted postcolonial novel offers them a space where their common sense ideas come against a sort of cultural density that cannot be reduced simply by adopting a Eurocenteric stance. In a way, it generates a sort of humility on the part of resistant students, which encourages them to see, search, and research. I have noticed that if I spend a little more time on close readings of the texts, my students respond more positively, ask better questions, and learn that in order to read the narratives of their global others, they will have to, at least, know a bit about the languages, cultures, and histories of their global others.
I am grateful to Said for reshaping my views on close readings and for making it a more acceptable form of critical reading in his last book. It makes my job easier.