Monday, July 5, 2010

On Close Reading, as Written by an English Major

Today I read this article in The Atlantic, and I just really wanted to share some thoughts on it. It's a piece by Heather Horn on why we need to stop the practice of "close reading" in middle and high schools-- elementary schools, even, I'm sure. Close reading is what you do when-- and I know we're all familiar with this, especially if any of you Americans were Advanced Placement classes-- you take a tiny tidbit of a piece of writing and pick it word from word, searching for meaning and significance in every punctuation mark and capitalization and simile, until you have something that sounds very deep and insightful and having to do with literary technique. Horn thinks this approach needs to go.

As a lover of literature, as a former little girl who devoured books with relish, who wanted to read hard books, classics, everything I could, as an English major, as a journalist, as a writer of poetry, I want to tell you something that has been in my heart for a long time: it's crap.

I will say right off the bat that I don't believe kids shouldn't learn a lot of tiring, boring stuff when it comes to language. We need our kids diagramming sentences and taking intensive grammar courses again, because it's shameful how many adults are unaware of how our language works (and most of the time it's not that hard if you're actually aware of the rules). But close reading? Please. You can teach rhetoric and all that good stuff without making it absolutely miserable. You can read a book and then revisit themes and important passages and things like that, but you don't have to pick everything apart until all you have left are words. Dead words. There are worlds in books, in poetry and you can't really explore or enjoy them while trying to make up a reason why that rock is symbolic of unrequited love. I think close reading often doesn't go along with real critical thinking, which is a hugely important skill that we need and can be applied across the board. I think most of the time, close reading teaches great skills. I don't know what the answer is to the critical thinking problem, but it's not being addressed through any method that students, by and large, don't seem to find rewarding.


Though I've always loved reading, I don't do it much now. I am willing to admit that I rarely read for pleasure, something that started sometime in high school when there just stopped being time. All year I read and dissected books I hated. The summers before junior and senior year, I read 12 books in four months, most of which I hated because I was forced to read them and think they were good, for Advanced Placement courses. I couldn't even tell you what most of them were. A lot of them I skipped reading. In college, I'm drowned in so many texts that I certainly don't get through every one, and I end the semester feeling utterly drained and sick of reading (I don't feel as drained by classes when reading literature I like or when the professor takes a looser, more exploratory approach). I remember there were books I'd wanted to read like when I was little when my mother would take me to the bookstore and I'd pick several with intriguing covers and gobble them down in days. I couldn't. We were expected to know these books so we could sound knowledgeable on tests. Books are more than literary techniques, though: they can breathe like you and I. Books are the same now as they were then, waiting to immerse us and teach us, if we let them.

That's essentially where teachers, in my experience, get it wrong: we need to let children read for pleasure, at least some of the time. English classes should take kids to the library and let them choose some of their own books. They should ask what did you get out of this book? and then find a way-- there is one-- to turn that back around on how literature works effectively. You identified with the dog because it was personified. You thought everything happened at sunrise was important because it was a metaphor. And you had fun, right? And believe it or not, if kids can finally pick up a books and have fun without being pressured to get so much deep philosophy out of it, they'll be good readers. They'll be good readers because they might just want to read a lot. Maybe even for the rest of their lives, if teachers don't ruin it for them.

And I have to mention at this point the tragedy that is poetry taught in school. Poetry is a great way to teach how language works, since it's an example of using language in creative ways while making sense and bending rules, which poets can do because they know the rules so well. I don't know many young people who like poetry. Poetry is always the part of English class kids hate, because the whole thing is sitting there talking about what the word "was" meant in that sentence and why it was so well-chosen.

Teachers say that poets choose every single word so carefully that they have meaning, that you can examine them all and find something.

As someone who writes poetry, I call bullshit. No offense to any of you who may write poetry like this, but I find that this is just the way teachers want us to think poetry works, an art which to me is such a pure mode of expression that everything doesn't have to fit perfectly as long as it makes you feel something. By over-analyzing poetry, we kill it. We take the life from it, the life it needs to really make a person feel something.

When I was in a poetry-writing class in college, I said in front of the class that I don't think you have to analyze poetry, or edit it, or believe it has a meaning, or pretend it does. Sometimes a poet is just describing a really pretty flower-- enjoy it for that. I don't think poems should be edited because a certain word contains a really helpful mythological reference if you put that in there. No. If you can pull the reference out of your own store of knowledge, do it, but don't search for stuff for the hell of it. When you write poetry like teachers teach poetry, you miss the point.

The class looked at me like I was crazy, professor included.

Seeing kids hating books makes me sad. The only value I have for the oh-so popular literary fluffballs we call Twilight and Harry Potter is that they remind kids that books can be fun. Guess what-- no matter how easy these books are, they show that kids WILL DEVOUR LITERATURE if we let them enjoy it and become immersed in it. Kids aren't stupid: they're bored. I'm bored. I'm a college English major and I'm sick of being told what to read and making up crap essays about it. The education system needs to key into this ASAP (though not necessarily colleges across the board: students do elect to take their college classes). I don't say we need to do away with close reading, but we need to reassess how we teach the skill of close reading, preferably in a more engaging way. News flash, kids will love books if we take away the feeling of work. Reading makes you a good reader. Being a good reader makes you a good writer. Being a good writer helps you become an effective communicator. See how more reading freedom could turn into a very, very good thing?

To understand any kind of literature, we don't have to pick it apart or deconstruct it; yes, books are more enriching when we're able to read deeply, but seeing the whole picture is just as crucial.  I think kids would get far more enjoyment and use out of literature if it was just let stand on its own. Read a book, love it, hate it, do whatever you want with it, but love it or hate it because you actually got a little intimate with it-- and that doesn't have to be through exhaustive analysis. I mean, let's put it this way: you're probably feel more intimate with your boyfriend/girlfriend who sees and appreciates you as an entire picture-- a mind and a body-- than your doctor/gynecologist, who views you-- all their niceness aside-- as a patient whose parts are to be examined and assessed.

I suppose that means I'm saying let's make love to books after we take them out for ice cream and their favorite movie, not make them put their feet in stirrups while wearing a humiliating johnny so we can get a better view.

Any thoughts on close reading? Love it? Hate it? Do we need to change how we include it in today's English classes?


Miss C said...

I agree with your point of view whole heartedly. It's so strange to me because in my family my mother and I love to read, but my father and brother won't read anything but tech manuals! I will say that being an education major, it is really hard to change systems already in place. Individual teachers would have to take it upon themselves to come up with a system that works better. I love the idea of teaching outside the box, and though I won't be teaching English (Art Ed major), I think it's really important to instill good English skills in our students. A lot of change is needed in our school systems in general, and it starts with good teachers.

Anonymous said...

Hate it. Yes, symbolism and themes are important, but it really sucks the fun out of the words. On another note, do you really think Harry Potter is literary fluff? Or that it deserves to be grouped alongside Twilight? With all due respect, that is. I just have a sort of sentimental place for it in my heart since it was 'gateway' to reading and eventually writing. Sorry. I just had to defend it, haha.

Jem said...

Here, here! I second this! Having read a lot of books in High School that I deplored I wish my teachers had let us choose some of our books, or at least steared us in the direction of good literature. I also have to agree, I can't believe some of the rubbish which teenagers are reading (*ahem* Twilight) it makes you wonder who is really writing this junk? Why do they all think teenagers that don't enjoy a good book which is actually written well? I swear were not as stupid as they think we are! Also I beg to differ, but I don't think Harry Potter can be in the same sentance as Twilight and also be called fluff. As a self proffessed Harry Potter mega-fan I think the books are in their own league in terms of the quality of writing, the plot, and the moral of the story.

Anonymous said...

I hate close reading. I hate, hate, hate it!

I think of stories as soup. The Silmarillion is like a beautiful, rich, creamy soup that you can enjoy as this delicious soup. But when you start dissecting the words, and where the inspiration for the places came from, and why the sentence is phrased just so, you STOP EATING THE SOUP. You stop actually reading the book and loving the characters. You stop eating the soup, because you're worried about what breed the hens were that laid the eggs, and what kind of beef stock it is. I want to read books. I want to eat soup. That's what I'm here to do. When you start worrying about certain word choices and exclamation points vs. periods, when you start worrying about potassium content of the soil where they grew the carrots, you stop reading the book, and you stop enjoying the soup. Your left with dead words that mean nothing to you, no worlds, no battles, no feeling, no character. And you're left with beef stock and a pile of vegetables that don't taste very good.

Rant (and very complicated metaphor!) Over and Out!

Anonymous said...

Oh, I meant "You're left with dead words......" not "Your!" Oops.

innessfree said...

Thank you for this. As a recent English grad, I struggled with the guilt of sometimes HATING the reading and writing process of school, when I had always loved it as a child. It's nice to know that I'm not alone! And, now that I've graduated, it's lovely to be able to read for pleasure again.

I agree with your stance on teaching literature to children. I've never understood why some people hate to read, when it's such an escape for me. Your post helped me to realize that it's largely the way we teach children to read. I hope that we can do something about that. Do you have any suggestions?

Christine said...

I really enjoyed this post, and agreed with a lot of what you have to say. I have always loved to read, and continue to read for fun even though I'm an exhausted college student. But I've watched the vast majority of my friends either lose their appreciation for literature or just never find one to begin with, after years of being forced to read prose they cared nothing about. As well, I did both AP English exams, and there is nothing that sucks the enjoyment out of an amazing book more than those detailed multiple choice questions.

I just have one slight disagreement wth your article though - your description of Harry Potter as an "oh-so popular literary fluffball". While I agree with this description for Twilight, since those books have no depth to them whatsoever, and little (if any) literary merit - I think the Harry Potter books are well written, many-layered and complex, and definitely not "fluff".

Thanks for the great post, it definitely got me thinking!

Kelly said...

In the article you linked to, it gave this as an example:

"It's because it's an elm, and when you think elm, you think Dutch elm disease, and elms are dying out--sort of like their relationship, see?"

I don't get that sort of in-depth "analysis" of books anymore now that I'm out of school. And I honestly do miss it and feel like I'm barely scratching the surface of a "book reading experience" because I don't really make those connections anymore when I'm not in a classroom setting that guides me to them. So I feel like a lazy piece of trash even though honestly? I *know* a lot of it was pure BS when I was in school.

As for reading for pleasure - in my grade school, every day there was 20 minutes or so at the end of the day when the whole school would do SSR - "sustained silent reading." We read whatever books we wanted. In the higher grades, sometimes you did reports about them. Looking back I think that was a fantastic thing for the school to do, because kids could choose books they wanted and digest them how they chose to.

Vanessa said...

Miss C: I couldn't agree more with your point about good teachers. I think the education system needs a HUGE overhaul. Especially being from Massachusetts AKA The MCAS State, I can see how our stress, for instance, on standardized testing really takes a lot of great opportunities away from kids to have great, creative teachers.

Isabel, Christine, and Jem: sorry about the Harry Potter comment! I used to be really into the series and I've read most of the books multiple times. I don't mean to say they're BAD books, but what I meant was to differentiate between reading books that aren't too complicated from a literary standpoint and reading, say, something by Dickens. This is just an opinion, though-- and I would say HP still trumps Twilight, hands down when it comes to the quality of writing and the story.

Luinae: Lovin' your extended metaphor. No more to say, I agree completely.

innessfree: I really wish I had a lot of great idea about HOW to get kids to love reading, but I'm really not sure. I think a lot of it will come back to allowing kids to feel free to read what they want, at least some of the time, and especially, perhaps, at a younger age. I think part of the answer may be that we need more teachers teaching really exciting books and maybe not feeling so tied to the same things kids have been reading in class for the past 50 years. Classics have their value, but there are tons of 'em that we could teach that would spark more excitement.

Kelly: we had SSR, too! I think it's an awesome idea and I really hope a lot of schools give kids more time to read on their own. If I recall, most of the kids in my classes didn't put up too much of a fight to actually read a book they were interested in, and I think that's a great thing-- and really indicative of my point that we can get kids reading if we don't hold them down and force them to do it a certain way 100% of the time.

Vanessa said...

Oh, and another thing about Harry Potter: I didn't write this in the post, but one of things I find MOST amazing and encouraging about it is that some of these books are LONG. Really, really LONG. And kids actually read them-- multiple times, even! I think there's something to be explored there when kids hate dauntingly long books (I'm willing to admit I tend to go "oh my goooooddd noooo not 500 pagessss!" and stomp my feet when I get assigned a long book) but they really can get through them without being bored.

I often feel that teachers see this stuff and don't take the time to think what it could MEAN for how to teach. Or that they aren't given the freedom to take advantage of kids' potential to do work.

Laells said...

I totally agree with you though that everything can be made appealing to the younger generation.

When I was in placement for college (I was in the Child and Youth Worker program) I got assigned to a creative writing class and the teacher went ecstatic. He'd been teaching for just about ever so the way he saw it he had someone in his class who was way closer in age to the student than he was.

Why not pick my brain and figure out what the students might like? I'm following what they're into probably a lot more than he is. There was a fair share of illiterate (to be blunt) teens there and my teacher was thrilled to have a younger and 'fresh' point of view and was totally open to any ideas or suggestions I had.

I really lucked out with a placement teacher like that though (he let me make up writing assignments and projects for them) but it leads back to what Miss C was saying.

We need teachers that see an opportunity and then take the initiative to do something about it.

Good post though. It's kind of sad in a way when you think about reading being ruined like that. Books are one constant source of inspiration for my artwork.

Bunnies of Bliss said...

I had the same opinions about Harry Potter and Twilight until I started teaching high school, had nothing in common with my kids, and picked up both. Twilight? Suckage. Harry Potter? Surprisingly wonderful.

I worked with kids with criminal records, kids who had been expelled from multiple school systems, and kids who were court-ordered to attend. Quite frankly, by December of my first year of teaching I was thrilled when one of my kids was reading Harry Potter.

The character development is astounding. The narrative voice isn't Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Milton, but it's accessible and not as simple as we'd like to think.

Also, they're kids. Sometimes it's hard to remember that. Kids need kid books, young adults need young adult books. That's not to say that teenagers shouldn't start reading the canon -- they should. But it's unrealistic to think that the average 15 year old sophomore is going to read Pynchon for fun over the summer. Harry Potter was for my kids what David Sedaris is for me.

It's such a common attitude, and one that I had for ages -- that kids shouldn't be reading stuff like Harry Potter and Twilight. But really? The kid's reading. Leave the kid alone.

The lack of good teachers? Horrid administrators, shitty pay, a dull curriculum, lack of funding, and red tape can all be thanked.

I went to law school. I loved teaching, but damn. The kids were the only redeeming part of the whole gig.

Shannon said...

I have to disagree a little bit. Sure, sometimes close reading gets ridiculous, and then it's clear that it's a load of BS. And sometimes the identification of some invented "symbolism" doesn't even enhance one's understanding of the text.

But there are many more instances where at least a little bit a formal analysis gives the student a much greater understanding of the text. Realizing that Bloom's lunch in Ulysses is much like a sort of communion gives relevance and significance to a scene that students may think is pointless.

Close reading may go too deep at times, but it's generally very important to students' understanding of literature.

Ms Sublime said...

Hi just stumbled upon your excellent blog..really enjoyed this piece because I share the view that poetry shouldn't be disected! We need to be able to appreciate the whole rather than pull away the sum of the parts.

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