New criticism. Close reading. Explication. Annotation. Call it what you will, but most anyone who has ever been a middle- and high-school student has done at least one of these in an English class at some point. The teacher handed out a poem or a story, probably double-spaced, and told the students to write all over it, to underline and comment on the literary devices, to makes notes on thematic passages, to dissect it like a frog in the lab and examine the working parts. You might have even written a paper to explain the whole process. And if you did this as a student, you probably hated it, resented it, and tried to get it over with.
But your teachers were trying to teach you a valuable skill, one that is vital to an understanding of language and also to citizenship.
When we do close readings in my creative writing classes, I always remind my students: lots of people can read a story and proclaim either “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it”— but few of them know why. The analogy that I like to use involves driving: lots of people can get in a car, crank it up, get to a destination, park it, and get out. But not many can raise the hood and have any clue about what’s happening under there. Most people wouldn’t know a slipping transmission from a misfiring piston, just as most people wouldn’t know a logical fallacy from a malapropism. The level of skill required for a surface-level reading is no greater than a common driver’s ability to turn a steering wheel and press the gas and brake. But the skill required to do a close reading is that of the mechanic, who recognizes what is out of whack, and that it needs to be fixed.
Anyone who has either of those skills – the ability to read in-depth or to fix a car – has something valuable. The ability to read a novel, a poem, a news article, or a contract, then get into it and derive both explicit and implicit messages— that skill will carry any reader further into comprehension than the surface-level reader is able to go. Why does that matter? Because many, many people in this world manipulate words to their own advantage – politicians, lawyers, corporations, advertisers, salespeople – and being able to see through the façade into the truth can make all the difference.
This real-world difference is what us literary types call “criticism.” It is greater than “appreciation,” which is only a surface-level experience. Though, in real life, we would rather be appreciated than criticized, when it comes to reading texts, the opposite is true. Criticism is far greater. Appreciation is a matter of getting through the text and only being able to say, “It’s good. I liked it.”
Sometimes we hear the snarky comment, “Everyone’s a critic”— No, no they aren’t. My dad used to be fond of saying, “Opinions are like assholes. Everybody’s got one, and they all stink.” However vulgar that may be, it’s equally true. Everyone isn’t a critic, because too many people resent having to read and think deeply, both of which could have been learned by participating fully in close readings in school. Making a negative comment – being critical – doesn’t make someone a critic. Without the ability to read deeply and think critically about a text or a film or a news article or a political speech, the only interpretation possible is a surface-level interpretation, one that can only take the words at face value. Believing that everyone’s opinions constitute “criticism” would be like believing that every driver on the road could pull over and tune up the car’s engine. Put simply, they just can’t.
Every year, I begin my classes by covering Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” which depicts metaphorically how people who are imprisoned in the darkness (of ignorance) mistake shadows for real things. Then one prisoner gets to leave the cave, and of course, the light (of knowledge) hurts his eyes, but they do adjust. Plato lived about 2,400 years ago, in ancient Greece, but his message is still true: a person who only knows ignorance is likely satisfied with it, because he doesn’t know any different. That person’s initial transition into the light, which symbolizes learning, will be hard and painful, but once that transition is made, the clarity provided by that light will makes his life so much better. Once a person is out in the light, he or she is no longer a “prisoner.”
In general, students dislike doing a close reading. They complain that it’s hard, that it’s time-consuming, that it’s not fun— and they’re right, on all counts. But to be a competent citizen in a democracy, a person must learn to read (or listen) well, to analyze language and its usage, and to think critically about the words that have been proffered. All of those skills pay dividends far beyond the classroom. For example, these skills would be useful when we encounter charismatic demagogues who promise to reinvigorate and protect our society by doing things that aren’t actually good ideas.
Like that prisoner in Plato’s allegory, we all hesitate to abandon darkness in favor of light, often because we’re frightened of what we might see. We often take solace in “the devil we know,” clinging tightly to the myths that have sustained us— myths like the us-versus-them paradigms that establish The Other as monstrous and evil and lurking, just waiting for the opportunity to strike, destroying everything that is good in our lives. When those myths are scrutinized in the light, they’re often exposed for what they are: paranoid misconceptions that are driven by surface-level understanding. We hear the words, we don’t think about them, we just accept them as truths.
And though you may have resented your English teacher for making you do those boring, time-consuming, difficult close readings, just look on the bright side, and then you’ll know why.