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Close Reading  

Mark Byron

Close reading describes a set of procedures and methods that distinguishes the scholarly apprehension of textual material from the more prosaic reading practices of everyday life. Its origins and ancestry are rooted in the exegetical traditions of sacred texts (principally from the Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Islamic traditions) as well as the philological strategies applied to classical works such as the Homeric epics in the Greco-Roman tradition, or the Chinese 詩經 (Shijing) or Classic of Poetry. Cognate traditions of exegesis and commentary formed around Roman law and the canon law of the Christian Church, and they also find expression in the long tradition of Chinese historical commentaries and exegeses on the Five Classics and Four Books. As these practices developed in the West, they were adapted to medieval and early modern literary texts from which the early manifestations of modern secular literary analysis came into being in European and American universities. Close reading comprises the methodologies at the center of literary scholarship as it developed in the modern academy over the past one hundred years or so, and has come to define a central set of practices that dominated scholarly work in English departments until the turn to literary and critical theory in the late 1960s. This article provides an overview of these dominant forms of close reading in the modern Western academy. The focus rests upon close reading practices and their codification in English departments, although reference is made to non-Western reading practices and philological traditions, as well as to significant nonanglophone alternatives to the common understanding of literary close reading.