Friday, July 02, 2010

"Stop Close Reading" in the Atlantic

Hey, kids! Here's a fun activity that you can do at home in your spare time to earn cash--and it won't take you more that 15 minutes! Honest!

1. Take a term, any term.
2. Define it narrowly in just the way you want it to be defined, preferably in a way that makes it sound terrible.
3. Take a provocative stance, preferable one that argues against the term.
4. Slap a bunch of ill-informed generalizations and opinions on it. (Logical arguments and evidence aren't necessary. See, I told you it was easy!)
5. Write a 5-paragraph essay.
6. Sit back and wait for the check from The Atlantic to arrive in the mailbox.

While it's true that the metaphor-and-symbol hunt can become drudgery in the wrong hands, and an agonizingly slow pace can suck the life out of any book, "close reading" is more than it's made out to be in the article. If I were being a curmudgeon, I could point out that there's a logical inconsistency in "there would still be plenty of opportunity to point out metaphors and similes"--when, exactly, would you do this if you're speeding through all three volumes of Twilight or whatever "the kids" will "like"?

Somehow I'm reminded of Woody Allen's joke: "I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia." Yes, and Moby-Dick is about a white whale, and all hell breaks loose in a Hawthorne novel when some woman starts wearing a piece of bling--a red letter A on her chest.

Close reading isn't the devil. It's a technique that helps students figure out what's going on in a passage. It helps them to learn how to think critically and at multiple levels. It's possible to beat a dead horse about this (cliche alert! metaphor alert!), but even if you hate Brooks & Warren with every fiber of your post-New Criticism body, you have to admit that at some point interpretation comes down to the level of the word--or else how would you read Emily Dickinson?

[Edited to add: Okay, this took me 15 minutes and is a 5-paragraph essay. James Bennet, you can send me my check now.]


Tree of Knowledge said...

Wow. That person is crazy and has no idea what she's talking about. Since I have no idea why she believes this because she provides no evidence, I'm going to assume it's experiential and anecdotal. The part about kids hating books because of close reading doesn't fit with my schooling. I loved to read, but hated English because I was reading books that I found boring. I think choosing books because they're great literature rather than age-appropriate is much more likely to cause problems (for example, we read The Old Man in the Sea in 7th grade; I understood it but was immensely bored by it because kids aren't the intended audience. I hated Hemingway until I made myself read him again in college because of that experience).

Anyway, she's crazy but I am curious to find out why she wrote the article--why she believes this and who these "students" are that she has apparently "universally" surveyed.

Horace said...

You know what I hated doing when I was in middle and high school? Algebra. We should stop teaching it, because kids universally hate it, when what they would really prefer to do spell hELLO upside down on their calculators. Who's with me?

undine said...

Tree of Knowledge, you're onto something there. Maybe it's not the pace of the books but the books chosen for this kind of treatment--Old Man and the Sea, Silas Marner, Ethan Frome, Steinbeck's The Pearl.

Horace--made me laugh!

Anonymous said...

D*** -- a new low at the Atlantic. Writer and commenters actually think close reading means assigning arbitrary meanings to things ... !!! ... when it is the freakin' opposite ... !!!

undine said...

profacero--The Atlantic is taking the same stance as some students: "You're just making this up, aren't you?" Not helpful. Not helpful at all.