Active and Close Reading

I read slower than I write.” John Updike
“Reading is the only art form in which the audience plays the score; no other art requires the audience to be a performer.” Kurt Vonnegut
“When we read too fast or too slowly, we understand nothing” Blaise Pascal
“The person who does not spend as much time in actively and definitely thinking about what the has read as he has spent in reading, is simply insulting the author.” M. Arnold

A first step for participating in the Seminar is reading the selection. Far too many students read neither actively nor closely--not only because they have not learned how to discriminate among the various purposes of different kinds of reading but also because they have not been taught how to read actively. Here is a method that I have found productive if employed continually by teacher and student.

The phrase “active and close reading” suggests immediately two ideas. First, some books and stories deserve to be read closely, slowly, and actively--not only because we would miss many of their implied meanings but also because we must learn to recognize meanings other than our own in what we peruse. Second, there are times when how fast we read or how much we read is of no importance. What IS important is that we learn to reflect on what we read and learn how to carry on a conversation with the author. We converse with an author when we question always the text.

The purpose of active and close reading is to learn to read interpretively--to pay attention not merely to WHAT an author says but to WHY he says it in the WAY that he does. In short, the purpose in reading is not merely trying to recall what happens in a story, for example, but to think about why things happen as they do. With nonfiction, active readers take particular note of an author's choice of words (diction), use of sentence structure (syntax), and his or her organization of ideas.

Some books and stories like those that we will be reading, can be interpreted in several ways. And no individual, adult or child, teacher or student, ever thinks of all of the possible interpretations in a given selection. As a result, no one can tell you what is the correct interpretation of a story, poem, or play--not even, believe it or not, not even the author! However, this does not mean that all interpretations are equally good or correct. On the contrary, some interpretations are better than others and some are wrong. How can this be so? The answer is that some interpretations have more evidence to support them which makes them more plausible. Other interpretations are more comprehensive, that is, they explain more of a text than does another view. Still other interpretations are wrong: either there is no evidence to support them or the evidence offered is contradicted by some other statement of the author. But what about the author, why doesn't he or she have the last word about what was “really meant”?

Thomas Mann, in the extraordinary afterward of his novel, “The Making of The Magic Mountain,” says:

I consider it a mistake to think that the author himself is the best judge of his work. He may be that while he is still at work on it and living in it. But once done, it tends to be something he has got rid of, something foreign to him; others, as time goes on, will know more and better about it than he. They can often remind him of things in it he has forgotten or indeed never quite knew.

Just as no one can tell you what is the correct interpretation nor what your interpretation must be, so also no one can tell you what details in your reading are important. Meaning can begin anywhere--even with what someone else might regard an insignificant detail. Whatever furnishes you with clues for arriving at your own interpretation, that is what is important. In short, what is important varies from reader to reader.

In addition, to interpret a work for yourself does not require that you first read about the author's life, or about the times in which the author lived, nor review general introductory or background statements. Instead, a reader can begin by noting his responses to a story and then try to convert as many of them as possible into questions. However, to engage in this process fruitfully, a reader must learn to respect his own responses--that is, to take seriously his thoughts and feelings about a book.

Forming good questions whose answers can yield a great deal of meaning about a story requires at least two readings. Roland Barthes, the eminent French literary critic, maintains that “He who reads a story only once is condemned to read the same story his whole life.” On the first reading, the reader's main interest should be to note his responses in writing, that is, to make notations. Tom Romano, a New York high school English teacher, says that “Reading without writing [here, notations] is like cooking without eating.” During the second reading, readers note new responses and pay special attention to those notations that they can convert into questions.

Unless a reader learns to put his or her responses into writing by making notations as she reads, she will have few questions--or, if there are any questions at all, they will be so general that they could be asked of any story. Such generic questions yield little new knowledge and yet without questions, no one can increase his understanding of the material. The first step to learning then is, paradoxically, knowing what you want to know--that is, asking real questions.

As American philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler explains in his classic essay on “How to Mark a Book,” a notation is any response to the text that a reader puts into writing. Notations take various forms: underlining what is important, circling key words, drawing lines to make connections between similar parts, comments, personal, emotional reactions, reminders, and even nascent questions. As John Ruskin so aptly remarked, “No book is worth anything which is not worth much; nor is it serviceable until it has been read and reread, and loved, and loved again, and marked.” Serviceable is the key word.

Experienced readers have found that whenever they mark up a text, they usually refer to one or more of four sources for formulating questions:

(1) Whatever they think is important (for whatever reason).

(2) Whatever they don't understand. Not understanding something is more than circling unfamiliar vocabulary (although it includes this). It also means making notations about a character's motivation, for example, or why the story begins or ends as it does, or what the author means by a certain statement or includes a certain scene, and so on.

(3) Whatever they like or dislike, agree or disagree with. In other words, active readers are also careful to note their emotional responses. For Louise Rosenblatt (Literature as Exploration, part II), this step is crucial--what the reader brings to the text.

(4) Whatever they think is related--one part of the text to another. A chief concern of the second reading is looking for connections or patterns among various parts of the reading. For example:

(a) The repetition of the same word or phrase.

(b) The reoccurrence of similar actions.

(c) Contrasting words or actions.

(d) The place of something in the text (organization).

As with so many things, whatever we get out of an enterprise is proportionate to the effort we put into it. So too with reading. Unless we learn how to become thoughtful, active, and close readers, we will continue to miss many of the implications of what we read and, as a result, lose the pleasure of increasing our understanding of the text.