I live in Silicon Valley, where many close friends have a strong technology or science background. I’ve heard them talk about the “beauty” of math, the “elegance” of code, when it is “perfect”, “bug-free”, “brilliant”. These are aesthetic judgments of appreciation for the power of the human intellect (the brains that dreamed up math, that came up with code) that resonate deeply within me, not because I’m good at math or know how to code, but because I am a literature reader, teacher, and theorist. Like these friends, I know and appreciate the wonders of deep immersion into an abstract world not of my own making.
The analogy of doing math and reading a demanding piece of literature may seem a little far-fetched at first, but consider this: numbers and formulae are nothing else than signs that make meaning. They build it, sustain it, transfer it, can inhibit it, obscure it, or let ideas shine with clarity. Ideally, they communicate, they enable further thoughts or morph into the realm of the practical, letting us do or say things that we did not think of before. They enable communication with other human beings that can, ideally, make things better, reach further, be tested, corrected, made alive through new sets of eyes.
Reading a piece of important literature deeply, closely, is just like that. Entering into a demanding, intriguing, perhaps even forbidding old or new text feels like opening a door to an unknown room or stepping into a new landscape. It demands focus and self-control, a strong grip on what I know and what I realize I want to learn. I have to orient myself, find my footing, take in the big picture, zoom in on details, let ideas and observations suggest themselves, hop around, note things that don’t immediately make sense, acknowledge things I recognize. I need to concentrate, be still and open to let thoughts rise and bounce around, look closely, wonder, work with what I’ve already understood to approach what I don’t yet understand, recall tools I need for comprehension (such as the form and function of a rhetorical figure, a meter or rhyme scheme, my knowledge of the 19th-century novel, a philosophical concept, a feminist theorist who may help me interpret specific aspects of the text, etc.), all in order to connect a network of observations and ideas that ultimately (ideally) build up a rich picture in my mind.
In the college or university classroom, my own scene of collective close reading, successful moments or sustained close readings of literature have spawned amazing new insights and connections for me and my students. Like a string of math or code done well, they are hard work, but they are very rewarding. They make us feel like we’ve conquered (albeit not mastered forever) a little corner of the universe where things now make more sense, connections have become obvious, learning has happened. They create empathy with other worlds, other contexts, other histories, other individuals. They show us that we are not, in fact, the masters or mistresses of Everything, and that our views are among many possible ones with which we have to negotiate in good faith.
In my upcoming Fall quarter course at Stanford, the biggest task I’ve set for myself is to try to use the new media to model and expand close readings of the kinds we do in the classroom in a larger public forum, and not to do this in the form of teacher-centered lectures. My students and I will experiment with taking some of our close readings online and invite the world to think, talk, and be still with us to take in words and let us ask questions we didn’t know we had before. New digital tools will help us do this in (some) new ways, but the core of what literary close reading can and must do individually and together shall remain: making meaning.