In literary criticism, close reading is the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of a text. A close reading emphasizes the single and the particular over the general, effected by close attention to individual words, the syntax, and the order in which the sentences unfold ideas, as the reader scans the line of text.
In contemporary English practice, the technique of close reading was pioneered by I. A. Richards and his student William Empson; close reading then was technically developed by the New Critics of the mid-twentieth century, and so became the fundamental method of modern criticism. Close reading was developed further in the work of Professor Louise Rosenblatt. In French criticism, close reading is explication de texte, the tradition of textual interpretation in literary study, as proposed by Gustave Lanson.
As an analytical technique, close reading compares and contrasts the concept of distant reading, the technique for “understanding literature, not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data”, as described, by Kathryn Schulz, in “What is Distant Reading?”, an article about the literary scholar Franco Moretti.
Literary close reading and commentaries have extensive precedent in the exegesis of religious texts, and more broadly, hermeneutics of ancient works. For example, Pazand, a genre of middle Persian literature, refers to the Zend (literally: 'commentary'/'translation') texts that offer explanation and close reading of the Avesta, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. The scriptural commentaries of the Talmud offer a commonly cited early predecessor to close reading. In Islamic studies, the close reading of the Quran has flourished and produced an immense corpus. But the closest religious analogy to contemporary literary close reading, and the principal historical connection with its birth, is the rise of the higher criticism, and the evolution of textual criticism of the Bible in Germany in the late eighteenth century.
A truly attentive close reading of a two-hundred-word poem might be thousands of words long without exhausting the possibilities for observation and insight. To take an even more extreme example, Jacques Derrida's essay Ulysses Gramophone, which J. Hillis Miller describes as a "hyperbolic, extravagant... explosion" of the technique of close reading, devotes more than eighty pages to an interpretation of the word "yes" in James Joyce's modernist novel Ulysses. "We believe it is the interaction, the transaction, between the reader and the text that not only creates meaning but creates the reason to read" (p. 3).
- "What is Distant Reading?" | New York Times article by Kathryn Schulz June 24, 2011
- Miller, J. Hillis, "Derrida and literature" in Jacques Derrida and the Humanities: A Critical Reader, Tom Cohen, ed.
- The Close Reading of Poetry: A Practical Introduction and Guide to Explication
- Introduction to Practical Criticism
- Apolis, Thomas (July 4, 2010). "The Atlantic's 'Idea of the Day' Horns in to "Stop Close Reading"". Archived from the original on 2012-11-14.
- The Birth of Close Reading