Ways of Reading

James E. Dobson

There are various methodologies, or ways of reading, used in the humanities. Some closely attend to the language on the page and assign much importance to the formal elements present in the body of the text. Others concentrate on abstractions—ideas or figures—found within the text. Some methods of reading are completely removed from an individual text.

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What are Methodologies?

Methodologies are roughly agreed upon approaches to objects. A methodology might limit the types of objects that we can select or reduce our scope of inquiry. Methodologies are defined by fields. In the humanities a field or school of criticism will have an acceptable set of methodologies. These are not completely fixed, but within these schools there is some sense of agreement about what constitutes valid evidence and arguments.

All methodologies used in academic readings endeavor to defamilarize the text. In other words, these approaches make something that was previously sortable into understood and recognizable categories strange and new. Different approaches to our texts will enable us to see different aspects. If we choose to read closely, we most likely will confine our attention, our focus, on a sentence or two—at most perhaps a paragraph at a time. Some methods of reading will be better suited to certain types of text. For example, if we are discussing a longer work of imaginative fiction, a novel, and want discuss how an author represents some abstraction, we might look for multiple locations within the text in which we see this abstraction described or commented upon by the narrator or a character. Poetry might require careful close reading practices that attend to the formal elements of the poem. Other ways of reading might take as a “unit” of study a chapter, an entire book, or even multiple works. Still other methods ask us to consider a literary text alongside another cultural document while resisting our desire to make one primary and the other secondary, to use one to merely explain the other.

Choosing the right methodology for the circumstances

CloseReadingIcons_0000_Multiple-LocationsFor our assignments in “The American Renaissance,” we will want to think carefully about the kind of evidence we select from our reading. The methods we use for reading will ultimately frame the possibilities for our choice of evidence. Frequently, we will want to present what we call “textual evidence,” those short, fragmentary elements of text located with close reading practices, for our interpretive claims. At the same time, in order to generate an interpretive argument, we will require some selection of evidence. These practices—the selection and interpretation of evidence—typically will recursively inform each other.

Close reading

The practice of close reading involves careful attention to the organization of the text. For much of its history—originally this type of reading was a mode of exegesis used to read sacred texts such as the Bible—close reading has been used as a tool to understand and explain a text. For these readers, the text to be interpreted is complete and whole. This type of reader assumes that text (and, importantly, not necessarily the author) knows what it means and takes it as his or her job to give an account of the text. We use such readings as a way to explicate the meaning of the text. When close reading was formalized and introduced into the classroom, it was typically used with poetry. These close readers treated each poem as a single unit, a closed world that operates according to a logic contained within the poem itself. Every metaphor, word, element of punctuation, and even the blank space between words and lines, was to be framed according to poem’s interior logic. Poetry, as genre understood to give special attention to form, was attractive to scholars looking to give a formal account of how literature worked. These ideas from early twentieth century scholars continue, in various forms, to present day computer-aided approaches to the study of texts. (Dobson 543-654)

Lionel Trilling was an important mid-twentieth century American literary critic who helped turn close reading practices from the closed world of the book to the larger study of American culture. Originally written as an introduction to an edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Trilling added his essay “Huckleberry Finn” to The Liberal Imagination (1950), a major work of cultural criticism. Against other literary critics who had argued that Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn was a picaresque figure completely outside of nineteenth-century civilization, Trilling reads him as “involved in civilization up to his ears” (Trilling 108). He presents as evidence several passages and terms used in association with Huck in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

Huck does indeed have all the capacities for a simple happiness he says he has, but circumstances and his own moral nature make him the least carefree of boys—he is always “in a sweat” over the predicament of someone else. He has a great sense of sadness of human life, and although he likes to be alone, the words “lonely” and “loneliness” are frequently with him. The note of his special sensibility is struck early in the story: “Well, when Tom and me got to the edge of the hilltop we looked away down into the village and could see three or four lights twinkling where there was sick folks, maybe; and the stars over us was sparkling ever so fine; and down by the village was the river, a whole mile broad, and awful still and grand.” The identification of the lights as the lamps of sick-watches defines Huck’s character. (Trilling 109)

Trilling first draws our attention to the repetition of certain words used in relation to Huck, lonely and loneliness, and asks us what these terms might mean. He accumulates textual evidence (“in a sweat” over other people) that he sees as in opposition to how other critics have characterized Huck (as a carefree boy) and then links them to an otherwise easily dismissed descriptive scene delivered (as the entire text is) in the first-person of Huckleberry Finn.

Form and Features

Geoffrey Hartman’s study of the great nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson in his essay “Purification and Danger in American Poetry” produces a close reading of Dickinson’s most interesting formal features, her use of ellipses and the long dash:

[Emily] Dickinson’s ellipses bear study, though they put an interpreter in the uncomfortable position of arguing from silence. This silence becomes typographic in one formal device, baffling, but at least obtrusive. It many poems an idiosyncratic mark—dash, hyphen, or extended point—replaces the period sign and all other punctuation. It can appear at any juncture, to connect or disconnect, generally to do both at once. It is a caesura or coupure more cutting than that of [Williams Carlos] Williams. It introduces from the beginning the sense of singular and epigrammatic statements. The zero endows them with the value of one, with loneliness or one-liness as in an amazing poem that begins “The Loneliness One dare not sound” (777). (Hartman 159)

Hartman’s reading method pays close attention to form, but it is, as he puts it in the title of his most important theoretical works, beyond formalism. Instead of focusing on the meaning of something represented within the text, such as the repetitions of terms noticed by Trilling, Hartman brings us to the signifier of absence. Dickinson’s punctuation, he dashes, hyphens, and ellipses, seem to both connect and disconnect meaning within her lines. These punctuation marks are silences, to some readers and to some approaches they would be called semantically free of meaning and discounted or, in the case of computer-aided distant reading, removed entirely. Hartman’s approach could be categorized as deconstructive. Like the two most familiar practitioners of deconstruction, Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, Hartman zeros in on elements that could be read in multiple ways, the dash as a marker of either a desire to close over a gap between two opposed ideas or to keep them apart, to separate and isolate two images. For Hartman, the presence of these ambiguous figures makes it impossible to find a single law or organizing scheme that fully explains the text.

Literature and Cultural Context

CloseReadingIcons_0002_Cultural-ConnectionsIn his introduction to The Office of the Scarlet Letter (1991), the Americanist critic Sacvan Bercovitch describes his understanding of the relation between literature and cultural context: “Culture works through a variety of agencies, forces, and pressures, some of these mutually contradictory. But basically it seeks to perpetuate itself through strategies of cohesion, and (in modern instances) it does so most effectively through particular rhetorical forms, designed to instate particular sets of norms and beliefs…Literature participates in this design. It is nourish by the same values, sustained by the same institutions, and informed by the same codes of personal and communal identity through which culture works” (Bercovitch xx). Bercovitch wants to engage in what is called ideology critique by locating instances of the “norms and beliefs” of nineteenth-century American culture through his close reading of The Scarlet Letter and its “rhetorical forms.”

In the following paragraph, we can see Bercovitch apply his method to selected passages in order to understand how The Scarlet Letter registers and participates in an ideology that presents a choice between multiple positions to mask the absence of meaning and conflict:

No critical term is more firmly associated with The Scarlet Letter than ambiguity. What has not been adequately remarked, and questions, is the persistent, almost pedantic pointedness of Hawthorne’s technique. F. O. Matthiessen defined Hawthorne’s ambiguity as “the device of multiple choice”—and so it is, if we recognize it as a device for enclosure and control. That strategy can be traced on every page of the novel, from start to finish, in Hawthorne’s innumerable directives for interpretation: from the wild rose he presents to readers in chapter I—in a virtuoso performance of multiple choice that is meant to preclude choice (for it instructs us not to choose between the local flower, the figural passion flower, and the legacy of the “sainted Anne Hutchinson”)—to the heraldic device with which the novel ends: the “engraved escutcheon” whose endlessly interpretable design (one “ever-glowering point of light gloomier than the shadow” but a source of relief nonetheless) “might serve for a motto or a brief description of our now concluded tale” (345; my emphasis). Concluded then, but, by authorial direction, it is now in process, a prod to our continuing speculations. The “curious investigator may still discern [it],” Hawthorne remarks, “and perplex himself with the purport” (345), and the interplay between our perplexity and its purport, like that between process and telos in the description of the rose (“It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close tale of human frailty and suffering”), tells us that meaning, while indefinite, is neither random nor arbitrary; rather it is gradual, cumulative, and increasingly comprehensive (159; my emphasis). (Bercovitch 18-19)

While Bercovitch uses a combination of close reading of a highly canonical text (The Scarlet Letter) with his close reading of culture, other critics sought to remove the question of literary aesthetics and form entirely by reading a work of literature alongside any other text from the same historical moment, in effect treating all writing, all forms of text, in the same way.

Jane Tompkins, another politically oriented critic writing roughly at the same time as Bercovitch, describes her reading methodology as “[looking] for continuities rather than ruptures, for the strands that connected a novel to other similar texts, rather than for the way in which the text might have been unique” (Tompkins xv). In his introduction to his essay collection on nineteenth and early twentieth-century American fiction, Walter Benn Michaels put the point somewhat differently: “the only relation literature as such has to culture as such is that it is part of it” (Michaels 27). Tompkins’s reading of Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World (1850), an immensely popular sentimental novel that Tompkins considers part of “The Other American Renaissance,” shows the continuities between popular “self-help” books and narratives such as Warner’s novel:

In a sense, these novels resemble, more than anything else, training narratives: they are like documentaries and made-for-TV movies that tell how Joe X, who grew up on the streets of Chicago, became a great pitcher for the White Sox, or how Kathy Y overcame polio and skated her way to stardom. They involve arduous apprenticeships in which the protagonist undergoes repeated failures and humiliations in the course of mastering the principles of her vocation. They always involve, prominently, a mentor-figure who initiates the pupil into the mysteries of the art, and enunciates the values the narrative is attempting to enforce. The trainer, who is simultaneously stern and compassionate, loves the protagonist most when she is being hardest on her. In sentimental fiction, the vocation to be mastered is Christian salvation, which, translated into social terms, means learning to submit to the authority society has placed over you. In Ellen’s case, her aunt Fortune (a literal representation of fate), and her later Scottish relatives, are the authorities whom Ellen must learn to obey without a murmur. (Tompkins 176-177)

Surface Reading

In a recent essay the critic and theorist Heather Love argues that we should adopt a method of reading texts called “surface reading.” Surface reading, in Love’s account, represents a move away from the above methods of “deep” close reading. This approach stills pays attention to the text, but it does not search for representations and figurations of various ideologies by locating either absent or present references. Love’s surface reading produces what she calls a “thin description” of a particular scene within the text. In the following passage of her essay “Close but Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn,” Love turns her observations about a formal feature of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the presence of multiple narrative voices within the novel, into a critique not of the ideology of racism but the material effects of the racist perspective:

I want to argue by contrast that this scene asks more of the reader than ethical repudiation. For one thing, the proximity between the narrator’s perspective and the slave catcher’s makes simple repudiation difficult. Although we may be horrified by the slave catcher, his perspective cannot be cleanly extracted from the narration; we are left with the haunting sense of a narrator who looks on this scene and does not care. That this scene cannot be read as merely a negative exemplum is suggested by Morrison’s care in describing the physical realities of the scene. Rather than reading this scene as an object lesson in failed empathy, we might see it as an instance of a documentary aesthetic in the novel. As Phelan notes, the objectivity of the perspective calls attention to the horror of Sethe’s act; however, this objectivity also makes legible material processes of dehumanization. Although dehumanization cannot be understood outside of a humanist framework, Morrison renders it here as a technique, a material process, rather than an ideology…Dehumanization, rather than being a kind of false consciousness that can be exorcised through cultivating an inside view, is a process with real effects; it is a fact, if not a truth. (Love 386)

In other passages in her essay, Love presents evidence from the text to advance her argument that Beloved has a “documentary aesthetic.” However, she does not read this evidence as signifying a need for correction to the normative perspective of the other narrative voice, but rather attaches it to another perspective, that of the slave catcher. Love ends her reading by demonstrating that the politics of Beloved are not repressed, but fully on the surface: “Less a witness than a documentarian, Morrison conveys the horrors of slavery not by a voicing an explicit protest against it but by describing its effects” (386).

Distant Reading

CloseReadingIcons_0001_Large-StackThe term distant reading was coined by Franco Moretti to name a method of reading that is capable of directly addressing a very large number of texts without relying on the accumulated accounts of prior readings. Distant reading names a process of reading that differs from close reading in terms of how we select the evidence through which we might make interpretive arguments. Moretti describes all the ways of reading outlined above as a slow, hands-on practice that is best suited to a single text or even a small passage within a text. Distant reading aspires to generate textual and numerical evidence from texts at large scale. In his recent book Distant Reading, Moretti provides an interpretation of several charts that represent the results of his statistical analysis of book title lengths over time:

The major metamorphosis of eighteenth-century titles is simple: in the space of two generations, they become much, much shorter. In Figure 1, where their length is measured in the number of words, the median oscillates between ten and twenty words for the first twenty-five years; it drops quickly to ten, around 1770; then to six by 1790; and it remains there (with minor ups and downs) until the mid nineteenth century. From fifteen or twenty words, to six. And titles don’t just become shorter, in the course of these 110 years, they also become much more similar to each other: in Figure 2, the steep drop of the standard deviation (which measures the degree of variation within a system) indicates precisely how rapidly the range of options is shrinking. (Moretti 183-184).

Moretti’s approach is neither close nor deep, but removed from the texts. We have moved from the close analysis of the text inside the book to just the text on the cover, the titles of a collection of seven thousand books.

Arguing against the emphasis on critique that has made many generations of readers suspicious of text, Rita Felski has recently made the claim that “engaging with a text has the potential to be an animating encounter rather than just a diagnostic exercise” (Felski 191). She asks readers to be open to the “force and lure of art works” when reading. All the ways of reading that turn the text an object for empirical analysis, or hold off at a distance, or correct with a critique of ideology have foreclosed upon what she calls “the sheer range and complexity of aesthetic experiences, including moments of recognition, enchantment, shock, and knowledge” (Felski 191). These experiences, for Felski, can be found in “the uses of literature in everyday life,” in readings produced outside of institutions and outside of the various schools of criticism. It involves engaging with what the French literary critic Roland Barthes, writing in 1973, called “the pleasure of the text” (Barthes).

CloseReadingIcons_0002_Rhetorical-FeaturesThe range of readings produced by our community of learners and readers, evidences the ability of literature to sustain innumerable approaches. Experimenting with different ways of reading might be a way to experience something new and different, even with a book that you have read multiple times before, and the dialogue that we produce by sharing and discussing our differing interpretations will enrich our entire community.

Additional Resources

Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1975.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Office of the Scarlet Letter. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Dobson, James E. “Can an Algorithm Be Disturbed?: Machine Learning, Intrinsic Criticism, and the Digital Humanities.” College Literature 42, no. 4 (2015): 543-654.

Hartman, Geoffrey. “Purification and Danger in American Poetry.” A Critic’s Journey: Literary Reflections, 1958-1998. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 149-164.

Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Love, Heather. “Close but Not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn.” New Literary History 41, no. 2 (2010): 371–91.

Michaels, Walter Benn. “Introduction” The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987: 3-28.

Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. New York: Verso, 2013.

Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination. New York: 1950.

5 thoughts on “Ways of Reading

  1. Some of the literature is of particular interest to me and some I have only been introduced to with the last year or two. Thank you, I look forward to studying in the course and viewing the lectures.

  2. Very enlightening text on various approaches to reading. The text, however, does not exhaust the ways readers — both literary-trained and lay persons — may approach a text. This is one fascinating aspect I am looking forward to in this course — the variety of readings and the interactions among all of us, teachers and students, concerning the texts we will be reading and discussing. I am looking forward to the “animating encounter,” Rita Felsky points out above, and to mark “the sheer range and complexity of aesthetic experiences,” as we all engage in our studies of the American Renaissance.

    Thank you,
    Jim Valero.

  3. Coming from a background of what is probably considered the most traditional school of close reading, I’m most excited to see what can be learned from Distance Reading. In this age of instant gratification, I think that students will likely relate well to this type of learning as it might seem that they don’t even have to read the text to understand its significance. I’m curious to see the pairings of the applications of particular reading styles with the texts that we’ll be reading. Bon chance!

  4. This is an excellent essay. As Professor Dobson says: “Experimenting with different ways of reading might be a way to experience something new and different”.

    Reading poetry requires close reading. We will read poetry of Walt Whitman. Reading Emerson requires deep close reading. Reading Doulass’s “Narrative” requires looking at the cultural context. Reading “The Scarlet Letter”, “Moby-Dick”, “Uncles Tom’s Cabin”, and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” also requires looking at the cultural context. Those novels can be read by surface reading.

    I agree with Rita Felski. We should open to the “force and lure of art works” when reading. Literature can be used in everyday life. She understands the power of art. The power of art shows the best of the human spirit. We can find the meaning in a world of imperfection by reading literature.

    I look forward to this course.


  5. Really enjoyed the part about how Huck Finn isn’t necessarily “carefree” when the text is closely read. Turns out, it is not that simple. He’s far more complex, and has more on his bind than we would like to believe.

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