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date: 10 April 2021

Close Readingfree

  • Mark ByronMark ByronUniversity of Sydney


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.

What Is Close Reading?

Anyone seriously engaged with literature [. . .] practices close reading; it only becomes one “approach” among others when the attempt is made to abstract some principles from it that are held to rule out the legitimacy of other ways of thinking about one’s reading.

(Stefan Collini, “The Close Reader”1)

How does close reading function, and what kinds of knowledge does it afford? To close read is to examine a literary work (or part of a work) with sustained attention to such matters as grammar, syntax, vocabulary, rhetorical tropes, prosody, as well as the presence of literary allusion and other forms of intertextuality. A close reading procedure may entail one or more, or all of these elements, depending upon the motivations for close reading in the first place, as well as the aptitudes of the reader, that is, the ability to detect often subtle features of language usage and the presence of specific patterns of usage. Close reading may focus on a single poem—Cleanth Brooks’s reading of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a particularly well-known example—or on short passages scattered across larger texts or corpora, or on longer works, although the general tendency is toward intensive reading of shorter texts. The kinds of information a close reading may yield vary between close readers, but can be usefully reduced into such typologies as: specific linguistic usage and patterns, including etymology; prosody and sound-related language effects; rhetorical tropes and procedures of argumentation; historical and literary references; and linguistic choices indicating sustained engagement with traditions of interpretation of literary or sacred texts. These forms of knowledge are often deployed in aid of such arguments as the literary and ideological influences upon an author, stylometric identification of authorship, evidentiary bases for textual interpretation, arguments for or against the legitimacy of external resources in the production of literary meaning, and ideological and aesthetic discourses within and between reading communities.

Close reading, then, is a method, or a loose collection of methods, aimed at evaluating how a text is assembled and discerning the implications of its linguistic choices. Close reading has a long history, embedded in the exegetical traditions of sacred texts, and hews closely to the history of philology, especially as that discipline sought to establish authoritative texts from among its various witnesses. Methods of close reading are also critical to the development of the law, where precise definition, clear language, and the unambiguous use of concepts have stimulated legislative reforms as well as the “plain language” movement.2 As a basis for interpretation, close reading is not only a hermeneutic procedure but a performance of the reader’s inclinations and aptitudes. Alternative reading strategies such as postcritique, surface reading, and distant reading respond to perceived limitations of the “depth” model of close reading practices. They instead seek ways of understanding texts and their contexts of production and reception attendant to direct (rather than encoded) meaning as well as to quantitative research methods. These innovations challenge the dominant structure of literary value in texts deemed to be interpretively rich, locating value in more dispersed frameworks such as genre, publication records, readership communities, and digital reach. Close attention to manuscripts, variant editions, and other textual sources—especially as these are collated in digital archives and editions—has stimulated renewed focus on philological methods. This development of textuality in the digital age provides a platform in which close reading methodologies and alternative methods of distant reading, surface reading, and so on, can intersect, each bringing an essential dimension to textual understanding.

Close Reading Sacred Texts

The shift to literacy in ancient civilizations provided the physical means to interpret, paraphrase, and attach commentary to sacred texts. This process was gradual, and ancient religions retained strong oral residues into the late-classical era. The presence of the Tetragrammaton (יהוה‎) in Jewish practice and the various nomina sacra in the early Christian tradition signify in writing the weight placed upon verbal enunciation of alternatives to the name of God. Various rhetorical patterns in sacred texts—dense anaphora in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3–12), for example—also signify oral performance. Eventually, complex systems of reading and interpretation grew alongside written religious texts. While this article will focus briefly on the texts of the Abrahamic traditions, the transition from oral commentary to written texts also applies to the Avesta, the central texts of Zoroastrianism emerging from earlier oral practices and entering the historical record in the 5th century bce, during the early Achaemenid Empire. The textual tradition collected under the Zoroastrian term “Zend” encompassed exegetical glosses, commentaries, and translations of the Avestan texts.3 Equally, ancient Vedic texts also emerged from an older oral cultural formation, and gave rise to the complex interpretive traditions of Mīmāṃsā. These schools of textual analysis provided the basis for subsequent developments in philology, Sanskrit linguistics, and the philosophy of language.4 Ancient Chinese texts attracted long traditions of commentary—best preserved in the Confucian canon of the Four Classics and Five Books. The evolution of literary commentaries that reflect processes of close reading—philological, linguistic, intertextual, and so on—bears its history in the exegetical tradition of the 詩經‎ (Shijing), known as the Classic of Poetry or Book of Odes. By historical convention the poems were collected from the Yellow River plains during the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 bce), from which 305 were selected and arranged by Confucius in the 6th century bce into the text that eventually became part of the traditional Confucian canon during the Han Dynasty.5


The founding texts of Judaism, the “dual Torah,” exist as the Written Torah—the Pentateuch (תורה שבכתב‎) or Five Books of Moses received at Mount Sinai—and the Oral Torah (תורה שבעל פה‎)—the sum of rabbinic commentary and other sources of Jewish culture and practice such as the Talmud and Midrash, which are considered as written records of extensive oral transmission. The history of Jewish textual reception is thus one of close reading and close listening. The largest reservoir of evidence for textual reception is the rabbinic literature stemming from the lands of Israel and Babylon between the beginning of the Common Era and the 7th century ce: the Oral Torah collected in the written texts of the Mishnah (מִשְׁנָה‎), which were in turn given critical scrutiny in the texts of the Jerusalem Talmud; and the Babylonian Talmud of late antiquity, which collected the Mishnah as well as several hundred years of subsequent commentary or Gemara. The cumulative layers of commentary and interpretation in this tradition is transmitted through intensive study. The meaning of Torah is “teaching” and that of Mishnah “study by repetition,” signifying in the names of Judaism’s core documents the central importance of close reading from which understanding gains the best chance of flourishing. This structure is not only cumulative but reflexive. The canon of the Torah, the Prophets, and Writings in the TaNaKh (an acronym for the Hebrew Bible in its totality) is considered in midrashic interpretation to be intimately interlinked through etymology and other philological features, the divine word combining into a seamless unity where each part sheds light on all others.6 Every word of the text forms an essential part of the interpretive process in commentaries, and in some commentary traditions this extends to each letter, with attention to their numerical significance becoming a way of reading the “code” embedded in language (gematria and notaricon). The customary belief that the TaNaKh precedes and serves as a divine blueprint for Creation—recorded in the late-classical midrashic text the Genesis Rabbah (בְּרֵאשִׁית רַבָּה‎)—is an early manifestation of the notion that “There is nothing outside the text.”7

Christian Bible

The history of biblical interpretation includes the assimilation of texts into one or other biblical canons, the development of biblical hermeneutics from the earliest patristic works, the consequences of the historical-critical method of establishing textual stability, the establishment of apocrypha and the assimilation of newly discovered textual versions (such as those contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls), and modern revisions to earlier interpretive methods, such as reading the Old Testament as generally prophetic of the New Testament.8 These textual methodologies often entailed the practices of close reading, where the stability of the biblical text was contingent upon its mode of production and transmission. This had particular resonance in terms of translation, where meaning was contingent not only on the movement between languages—Koine Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopian, and the modern languages into which the bible has been translated—but also on the specific historical contexts in which texts were transmitted. Modern challenges to the historical-critical method have resulted in closer attention to the intellectual world in which patristic authors were operating: the so-called “philological turn.” This revised view of the early church gave greater recognition to the central function of liturgy and homiletics alongside the formation of the scriptural canon as guides to interpretation.9

The two major schools of exegesis in the early church were the Antiochenes, foremost John Chrysostom, who largely dealt with historical or literal exegesis, and the Alexandrians, principally Origen, who relied on allegory in their scholia, homilies, and commentaries. Exegetes of the Roman Empire include Hippolytus, Ambrose, Jerome, and the most important of all, Augustine, whose exegetical homilies are collected in the monumental Enarrationes in Psalmos. The Great Schism of 1054 saw the Eastern Orthodox Churches break away from the Catholic Church and develop their own methods of exegesis and homiletics, developing the genre of the catena (from the Latin word for “chain”) which “builds a scriptural commentary by excerpting passages from earlier exegetes and linking them together—usually in the margin of the text to which they all refer, but sometimes in close proximity in other ways.”10 In the Latin West, the Reformation of the 16th century gave rise to exegetical doctrines that placed the Word—written and preached—at the center of reformed practice, grounded in “a basic commitment to the authority, sufficiency, and perspicuity of scripture.”11 The Roman Catholic Church underwent its own exegetical revolution in the Second Vatican Council, whereby the publication of Dei verbum in 1965 encouraged a fuller embrace of historical-critical methods drawn from scholarship on Hebrew and Christian scriptures from the early 19th century onward, placing emphasis on the historical contexts of the production of biblical documents as guides to understanding their meaning.12


The Qur’ān as well as the core Islamic texts known as hadith—pronouncements and actions traditionally attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and gathered several generations after his lifetime—gave rise to the tradition of تفسير‎ (tafsīr) or commentaries. The boundaries between these genres are not always obvious or easy to identify. Walid Saleh puts its succinctly: “There seems to be a solid consensus among scholars as to what the genre is not, but very little agreement about what it is.”13 This commentary tradition is still in its infancy as far as recognition in the West is concerned, but many of its elements are familiar when considered from an exegetical viewpoint. The stability and identity of the core texts of study form the basis of the discipline, much as textual criticism has done for biblical and classical hermeneutics, but the exegetical dimension of tafsīr (from fassarah, “to interpret”) extends well beyond textual matters into the domain of theological argument. Yet from its origins in Muhammad’s lifetime and the early years following his death, tafsīr was an instrument by which to explicate the Qur’ānic corpus and provide insight and guidance to the ummah or wider Islamic community. A مُفسّر‎ (mufassir) is someone who aims to explain and interpret verses of the Qur’ān or hadith, drawing on many disciplines including linguistics (the morphology of Classical Arabic is a crucial element), theology, and jurisprudence. Further, intensive study of sentence structure and syntax allows the mufassir to deploy rhetorical readings of the Qur’ān, illuminating both zoohor (literal meanings) and khafa (hidden meanings) in the text. Sunni, Shia, and Sufi schools gave rise to different traditions of tafsīr, all of which began as oral traditions before collation into scribal texts. The scholarly centers of Mecca, Medina, and Baghdad also produced different schools of tafsīr. Islam has generated a wide range of approaches to Qur’ānic interpretation and commentary; however, there is a unity of purpose in the intensive focus on individual words and phrases as a method for inducing meaning.

Secular Reading in History

The history of secular reading is as ancient as that of religious texts, yet it has not received the same kind of scholarly attention with the exception perhaps of law. Some of the earliest written secular texts include the various law codes of Mesopotamia, the most celebrated among them the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, dated to c. 1750 bce. Its cuneiform text in the Akkadian language is dedicated largely to contract law, but contains a partial constitution and the earliest known reference to the presumption of innocence. The discovery in 1901 of the diorite stele on which the text is inscribed produced a revolution in Babylonian scholarship but also transformed the general understanding of ancient Mesopotamian law codes.14 As objects of close reading, law codes form a central thread in the history of textuality: the replacement of Athenian oral law and blood feud by the written constitution of Draco (c. 620 bce), followed by the constitution of Solon a century later; the Roman Law of the Twelve Tables (c. 450 bce), which consolidated earlier laws and customs and was subsequently elaborated into categories of ius civile (law of citizens), ius gentium (law of the people), and ius naturale (natural law); and the amalgamation of Greek and Roman law in the great law codes of Byzantium such as the Codex Theodosianus (438 ce), the Corpus Juris Civilis of Justinian (529–534), the Ecloga of Leo III the Isaurian (726), and the Basilika of Leo VI the Wise (892).15 Roman and Byzantine law were largely secular, but each system exerted influence on the direction of canon law through the middle ages to modernity. The profound influence of Roman law upon European cultures bears its traces from antiquity to the time of modernity:

German legal theorist Rudolf von Jhering famously remarked that ancient Rome had conquered the world three times: the first through its armies, the second through its religion, the third through its laws. He might have added: each time more thoroughly.16

Modern techniques of critical reading develop the historical importance of the close reading of statutes and other legal documents. The capacity to parse complex sentences—including often labyrinthine clausal structures—remains an essential skill in legal practice.17

One of the most celebrated—and notorious—examples of how close reading practices in law shape the relation of the individual to the state, and the very identity and purpose of the state itself, is the jurisprudence that has grown around the Constitution of the United States of America. The interpretive modes applied to the central document of the Constitution and its twenty-seven ratified amendments range from originalism (reading the Constitution as having a fixed meaning contemporaneous with its ratification), judicial restraint (the Supreme Court’s role is to apply rather than to create the law), purposivism (reading the Constitution in terms of what it was intended to achieve even when departing from a literal account), to various forms of instrumentalism (reading the Constitution as a living document adaptable to reflect social change). Each relies on exacting interpretations of the text of the Constitution, but are supported by differing principles of how meaning is produced from that foundational text.

The history of close reading practices is closely interweaved with that of philology and textual scholarship.18 From the earliest systematic attempts to collect, curate, and reproduce the entirety of the classical textual tradition in Hellenistic Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE, the philologos or chief librarian oversaw techniques for accurately representing textual matter. These techniques were not primarily aimed at close reading for the purposes of interpretation, but rather to ensure textual accuracy in the processes of copying. Different traditions emerged in the Mediterranean: the Alexandrian technique of analogy sought authority in consistency between witness texts, while the library at Pergamum developed the theory of anomaly, in which inevitable error could serve as a guide to the most reliable witness text by a process of elimination, working back using the stemmatic relations between witnesses. Philological techniques were refined through the medieval and early modern period, resulting in systematic ways of approaching internal textual evidence (word patterns and repetition that could lead to a scribe omitting intervening text, for example) and external evidence (such as the date, source, and relationships between witness texts). These techniques spanned text-based inquiry—the Greek and Roman classics, biblical texts, history, vernacular literature, and so on—and formed the basis of the modern humanities. Philology slowly gave way to modern disciplinary methods, yet its apparition persisted in literary studies in the practices of close reading. Despite some resistance to historical context (in some varieties of New Criticism, for example), many schools of literary study retained a sense of the linguistic and etymological roots of modern texts.19 Newer methods of scholarship—poststructuralist theory, New Historicism, digital methods, and so on—mark a return to the methods of philology retooled for contemporary contexts of literary production and reception.20

From Explication de texte to S/Z

The technique of explication de texte dominated French schooling from the 18th century. It provided a stable approach to the understanding of a text, revealing its meaning in the forensic attention to textual detail. Based upon classical rhetorical models of praelectio (oration), it offered students of the baccalaureate a suite of references and quotations to embellish their speeches in subsequent public careers.21 This institutional practice was a powerful regulative tool of state education: students would divide their analysis into the three parts of summary description, identification of textual structure and genre, and an account of the literary and rhetorical devices used in the text, following a process that would result in a singular accepted interpretation of the text. This method prevailed beyond the mid 20th century, although one of its most influential proponents in the first half of the 20th century, Gustave Lanson, expanded its scope by introducing broader historical and cultural contexts into its hermeneutic mechanism.22

The emergence of structuralist methods of linguistic, literary, and cultural analysis—particularly Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of the sign, elaborated in his Cours de linguistique générale (first published in 1916), and its application by Claude Lévi-Strauss to anthropological notions of “savagery” and “civilization” in his Tristes Tropiques (published in 1955)—established a basis for the methods of semiology to break open reading processes and modes of interpretation across the humanities.23 As a general science of signs, semiology provided a theoretical basis from which to read various sign structures in cultural objects and fields such as photography, film, literature, advertising, and fashion. In its application to literature, semiology—and structuralism more broadly—represented a challenge to the entrenched practices of explication de texte and biographical criticism, vividly illustrated when semiology’s most prominent practitioner, Roland Barthes, was elected to the prestigious Collège de France by a single deciding vote in 1976 (Lévi-Strauss was a sitting member of the Collège at the time).24 Taken as a whole, Barthes’s literary analysis seeks to empower readers to engage closely with texts in a process that produces meaning in the exchange that takes place. This notion is captured in the provocation that concludes the essay “Death of the Author”: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.”25

Barthes applies his approach in S/Z, an extended reading of Honoré de Balzac’s novella “Sarrasine” (1830), where the text is divided into 561 fragments or lexias of varying length and subjected to a variety of critical and analytic operations: the “five codes” Barthes gathers under the terms hermeneutic, semic, symbolic, proairetic, and cultural.26 This extended commentary moves between description and critical interpretation, circling back on the structure of Balzac’s story to reveal further dimensions in etymology, onomastics (the middle S of Sarrasine countering the expectation of a Z, which is the “slash” of La Zambinella’s initial and of Sarrasine’s symbolic castration), and the interaction between plot and narrative. In 1973, Barthes develops these reading methods in Le plaisir du texte (The Pleasure of the Text), theorizing a division between lisible (readerly) and scriptible (writerly) texts; the former arouses pleasure in the passive reader, whereas the latter produces jouissance—roughly “joy” or “ecstasy”—in the active effort of producing a textual meaning through reading.27 These techniques of close reading register the traces of a wider practice among Barthes’s French post-structuralist contemporaries: the opening analysis of Diego Velásquez’s painting “Las Meniñas” in Michel Foucault’s Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things), or Jacques Derrida’s extended critical reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s essay “Essai sur l’origine des langues” (“Essay on the Origin of Languages”) (1781) and Lévi-Strauss’s 1962 work La pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind) in De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology), to take just two prominent examples.28

New Criticism

In the field of literary studies the term “close reading” has, until recently, borne close associations with mid-century techniques of literary criticism. The umbrella term New Criticism is often invoked to describe two broad movements in the United Kingdom and the United States that spanned roughly 1930–1970, becoming the dominant orthodoxy in English departments around the world during that time. The British movement centered on Cambridge University, the scholars I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis, Q. D. Leavis, and William Empson, and the literary journal Scrutiny; the American movement centered on Vanderbilt University and Kenyon College, the scholars John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Allen Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Kenneth Burke, W. K. Wimsatt, and Monroe Beardsley, and the journal The Kenyon Review. Despite the slightly earlier work of several British scholars having a direct influence on their American counterparts, the British movement was less unified in its sympathies and methods. Both movements were profoundly influenced by the literary essays of T. S. Eliot, whose influence on close reading practices was foundational, and whose influence on the entire modern discipline of literary criticism would be difficult to overstate.

English New Criticism

Eliot’s early essays provide the groundwork for his methods of close reading. Such essays as “Hamlet and His Problems” (1919) and “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921) were written when Eliot was working at Lloyds Bank in London, after he had left behind his academic career at Harvard, Oxford, and Birkbeck College. In other essays of the time Eliot proposed general principles of literary criticism and the uses of literary history—notably “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919)—but in these two essays Eliot turns his attentions to the procedures of criticism specifically by means of close reading. In “Hamlet” he makes the distinction between the apprehension and critical evaluation of the play, and the temptation of conflating the critic’s (or the critic’s proxy’s) imagination with that of the title character, as he accuses both Goethe and Coleridge of doing. Eliot combines close attention to the form and structure of Shakespeare’s play and its varied quality in versification, with deductions concerning its position in a history of dramatic works to which it is more or less indebted—a process of argument similar to that used in textual criticism in which both internal and external evidence are weighed to determine the authority of a particular text. His verdict is that Hamlet is a failure, “the ‘Mona Lisa’ of literature” in its imperfect overlaying of a mother’s guilt upon a variable structure of preceding playscripts, evident in the failure of an “objective correlative” to manifest itself as an expression of Hamlet’s conflicted emotions. In other words, by close reading, Eliot discovers what is not there in the text of Hamlet, unable to be recuperated even with the most assiduous historical and biographical research. “The Metaphysical Poets” conducts a series of close readings of lines and short passages in poems by John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and others, weighing the techniques of extended metaphor (the metaphysical conceit) against the lesser efforts of later poets. This concentration on poetic technique is magnified further in the essays “Phillip Massinger” (1920) and “Andrew Marvell” (1921).29

The foundation text of the Cambridge movement is I. A. Richards’s Practical Criticism published in 1929, a comprehensive report on the “experiments” he conducted over several years with his students. Richards distributed “printed sheets of poems [. . .] to audiences who were requested to comment freely in writing upon them.”30 The results were tabulated and a series of observations drawn from them to produce a theory of literary meaning. The rough analogy to such scientific procedures as biomedical clinical trials—anonymity standing in for randomization, texts cleared of any historical or biographical context standing in for placebo groups—gave these experiments an aura of empirical legitimacy. That Richards’s book is divided into a three-part experimental report is testimony to the efforts of demonstrating literary criticism as a discipline with a rigorous and replicable methodology: the Introduction of Part 1 serving as the aim and hypothesis; the Documentation of Part 2 combining the method and results; and the Analysis of Part 3 comprising the discussion of results. He is careful to distinguish literary analysis from the hard sciences, situating his experiment within “the natural history of human opinions and feelings.”31 The proximate aim of these experiments was to have students read literary texts without the contextual encumbrances of history and biography. The wider aim was to infer methods of reading and interpretation from the formal textual qualities perceived by the students. Richards’s experiment founded a mode of teaching literature that still bears the name of Practical Criticism at Cambridge, although it must be said it serves more as a formalist foundation from which to develop a critical reading. The focus on formal analysis established the role of prosody in modern criticism—akin to rhetorical analysis in classical philology—providing readers with tangible literary attributes as evidence for their interpretations. However, the radical separation from biographical and historical context has received pointed critique especially in light of materialist and sociological theories of literature. Lyric poetry affords a kind of material decontextualization not available to drama or novels due to matters of scale. It can be extracted onto an otherwise empty page. Additionally the poems selected for the experiment uniformly belong to the age of print, neatly side-stepping some of the material aspects of presentation in medieval texts such as paleography and orthography.

William Empson combined Richards’s close attention to formal aspects of poetry—Richards was his tutor at Magdalen College when he took a second undergraduate degree in English Literature at Cambridge—with Eliot’s focus on Elizabethan poetry in his major early studies: Seven Types of Ambiguity, and Some Versions of Pastoral. In a series of close readings, Seven Types of Ambiguity demonstrated the grammatical, prosodic, and rhetorical flexibility of English poetry, yielding mutually exclusive or otherwise alternate interpretations. This text had a profound influence on New Criticism in the United States, setting an agenda that led to Empson teaching in the annual summer school of criticism at Kenyon College in the late 1940s and early 1950s in the company of Ransom, Tate, and Brooks. Empson turned his attention to modern authors in a series of essays during the early 1930s, including Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and James Joyce. Some Versions of Pastoral, while treating texts mostly from the early modern period, begins to argue for the role of authorial intention, historical and social contexts, and other extra-textual dimensions in the service of interpretation. This led to methodological differences with Richards and major disagreements with other critics such as F. R. Leavis. A vivid index of Empson’s versatility as a reader is his rediscovered manuscript (now edited and published) The Face of the Buddha. Empson’s appraisal of Buddhist sculpture in East and South-East Asia turns on his theory that some of the earliest and most important sculptures (mostly Korean and Japanese) divide the face of the Buddha into two expressions, where the left side presents an expression of passivity and meditation, and the right engages directly with the viewer. This capacity to “close read” sculptures belonging to a foreign tradition (or set of traditions) is a feature of Empson’s critical technique, where his attention to an author’s (or sculptor’s) historical and cultural context indicates a clear divergence from the Cambridge and Kenyon scholars with whom he is most commonly grouped.

The Cambridge movement’s most durable icon is F. R. Leavis. His name has functioned as a kind of metonym for criticism that attempts to become systematic in response to advances in the physical sciences—his notorious disagreement with C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” argument being a case in point, where Snow lamented the divide between scientific and humanistic knowledge, manifested in a general illiteracy concerning the momentous advancements of modern physics in particular.32 The Leavis circle, which included Q. D. Leavis and the contributors to the journal Scrutiny, considered its analysis of a “shared moral economy” evident in literary expression as the basis for criticism. Leavis became a metonym against which historical criticism (Oxford) and theory-driven criticism (Yale, front running much of the academy) would define their primary tasks, invested in the historical and cultural contexts of literary production and reception. In his first major publication, in 1932, New Bearings in English Poetry, Leavis produced a series of close readings of W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, defining what was new and influential about their poetry.33 Leavis’s analysis operated in the manner of Eliot’s criticism, setting out his arguments with the support of close textual examination. Yet his methods in this book—and more so in later publications such as The Great Tradition and The Common Pursuit––were grounded in the historical and social contexts that shaped literary production. In this sense Leavis shared an important feature with Empson (albeit from a narrower and eventually more irascible worldview), than with the approach of Richards or the New Critics of the United States—who treat literary texts as verbal icons separated from authorial and historical contexts—with which his criticism is commonly associated.

American New Criticism

The critical practices of close reading that were to dominate higher education in the United States following the Second World War developed out of a reaction to philology and biographical criticism in the early 20th century. Attention to literary form, and its implications for interpretation, was a central theme of the criticism of Tate, Ransom, and Warren—who met at Vanderbilt University in Nashville between the World Wars and became known as the “Southern Fugitives.” Their arguments over the success or otherwise of Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land centered on its form, and more specifically its intelligibility when set against the demands of realism in literature. Tate saw its experimentation as a successful negotiation with the conditions of modernity where Ransom saw fragmentation and formal incoherence. The shared reaction to the emergence of the “New South” lent these critics a conservative or even reactionary aura, but at the same time demonstrated their commitment to criticism that took into account the economic impacts upon cultural formations—recognized in their collective identity as the “Agrarian” movement. Literature had an aesthetic autonomy from both scientific discourses and economics, was not reducible to mere utility, and deployed its texture (the material patterns of a text such as its sound) as a way to critique its structure (conceptual or “rational” content).34 Thus, a tension existed within the text, a product of its historical-cultural context in play with its form—a tension that placed a premium on the evaluation of irony in literary expression and its resistance to paraphrase.35 This embodied the moral dimension of literature in its presentation of paradox and contradiction in response to the modern condition: iconic in presenting its complexity in its form.36

This phase of criticism centered at Vanderbilt University began to coalesce into a movement: Warren and Brooks became editors of the Southern Review in 1936, and Ransom moved to Kenyon College in 1937, becoming editor of The Kenyon Review. Ransom responded to the crisis in the teaching of English literature in universities in his essay of the same year, “Criticism, Inc.,” seeing opportunity in leading reform in the Modern Languages Association.37 The publication of Warren and Brooks’s Understanding Poetry in 1938 went further, setting out the New Critical agenda for the undergraduate classroom. The massive expansion of higher education in response to the Great Depression and the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act or GI Bill following the Second World War placed new pressure on the practice of literary studies in the academy to justify itself beyond the technical grounds of philology from which it emerged in the late 19th century. The New Critical emphasis on the text as a verbal construction allied the dual aims of language-based research and interpretation, providing an argument for the wider social relevance for the study of literature. It also offered a powerful negation of the concept of authorial intention, given that literature, as a public verbal articulation, was subject to the social operations of language that exceeded a single subjectivity (including the reader, whose interpretation was also part of the social nexus of language). These developments had foundational effects upon canon formation in the American academy, favoring the Metaphysical poets and Modernists such as T. S. Eliot—just as F. R. Leavis and other critics in England had done—but also giving new attention to Romantic poetry. New Critical close attention to literary form and linguistic complexity aligned with the distribution of literary texts during and after the Second World War, that is, the Armed Services Editions of modern literature distributed to enlisted and drafted soldiers in training barracks who were awaiting deployment. This initiative was supported by William Warder Norton, president of the publishing house that bears his name, resulting in the free distribution of 122 million free books and 1,322 titles.38 The mass production of cheap titles unencumbered by extensive scholarly apparatus—and the emerging market for anthologies on which the W. W. Norton publishing firm was to have such an impact—served the vastly expanded academy following wartime, and realized the purposes of New Critical reading techniques.

The processes of close reading in the New Critical program established a readily identifiable lexicon: verbal icon, paradox, ambiguity, conceit, irony, and so on. The methods of close reading were analytic rather than illustrative, that is, authority resided in the critic’s ability to parse (usually poetic) texts and reveal the tensions between form and subject matter. This focus on technique—both evident in the literary work and in the processes of interpretation—provided a repertoire that legitimated English Literature in the research university. To take one of the more prominent examples, Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry performs a series of poetic close readings from Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton, to Pope, Thomas Gray, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats, to Tennyson and Yeats. Similarly to I. A. Richards in Practical Criticism, Brooks acknowledges that his studies stem from the classroom, in this case not as written exercises of evaluation but class discussion of “celebrated English poems, taken in chronological order,” developing a general theory of poetic structure from concrete examples.39 The book’s dedication reads: “To the members of English 300-K (Summer Session of 1942, University of Michigan) who discussed the problems with me and helped me work out some of the analyses.” Brooks makes repeated reference to Richards in the essays “Wordsworth and the Paradox of the Imagination” and “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes.” They share a method of close attention to poetic texts without concern for their historical contexts, although Brooks makes clear he sees value in such context and is seeking out whatever “residuum” remains after dealing with the poem’s cultural context. Brooks concentrates on the functions of paradox—the first chapter is titled “The Language of Paradox”—and does the most interesting work by extending its application from its native terrain of Metaphysical poetry to that of Romanticism.

The essay on Wordsworth puts aside biography (temporarily) to focus on paradox, irony, and, following Empson, the ambiguity inherent in Wordsworth’s choice of symbolism in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” The method of analysis approximates line commentary, repeated in the essay on Keats but with less direct quotation from “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” In that essay, Brooks attends to the rhetoric and logic of the poem, finding paradox in the way it sets out a portrait of an aesthetic object—the object of his book’s title, no less—but ends with a “sententious statement” equating truth and beauty and then asserting it to be “the whole of mortal knowledge,” which is for the poem “‘to mean’ with a vengeance.”40 The essay examines whether the urn’s final “utterance” constitutes a break in the poem’s tone, or whether its thread of paradox—beginning with the urn’s “silence” obviated by its role as “historian,” and continuing with the immobile urn’s ecstatic scenes—accommodates its chiasmus of truth and beauty. That final expression by the urn of its own nature is thus, for Brooks, an utterance “in character,” supported by the preceding scenario of urn and mythic scenery painted upon it. Brooks’s argument rests upon taking the poem as a whole as an expression of its subject matter, possessing a view on the world (and its world) that defies paraphrase. He sees Keats’s poem as a performance akin to his own critical method of close reading.41

This attention to complex verbal structures such as conceit and paradox, and such modes of expression such as irony, had the effect of installing certain kinds of literature at the center of the New Critical project at the expense of other kinds. The Metaphysical poets took precedence over Milton, and the Modernists over the Victorians and the Romantics—although some critics such as Brooks were far more even-handed in their appraisal than others such as T. S. Eliot. By attempting a definition of literature—the kinds of texts most amenable to these critical operations—New Criticism became associated with an ideology of aesthetic autonomy against which newly emergent fields such as cultural studies, semiotics, and poststructuralist theory would press. The long-standing hegemony of New Criticism in much of the anglophone scholarly world waned from the 1970s—prompting leading critics such as Helen Vendler to lament the eclipse of prosodic close reading practices42—but the methods of close reading took on new form in many of the emergent theoretical methodologies of the period.

Theory and Close Reading

One persistent legacy of New Criticism on both sides of the Atlantic is its perceived ownership of the method of close reading. Cognate with this notion is the sense that to read closely is to separate the text’s meaning from history, ideology, biography, and other discursive forces. Yet as French critical methods have shown, close reading has an extensive history as a central feature of interpretation. More generally, the emergence of modern literary studies from the long history of philology—of sacred and secular texts—means that exacting attention to minute textual detail has been a cornerstone of reading during the entire history of textual transmission and reception. In the anglophone context, and especially in the United States, the eclipse of New Criticism as the dominant paradigm was hastened by the introduction of French theory in the later 1960s. The legendary conference, The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man held at Johns Hopkins University in October 1966, is often taken as a symbolic point of transition. Talks by Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Paul de Man, Lucien Goldman, Georges Poulet, René Girard, Tzvetan Todorov, Jean Hyppolite, and Roland Barthes introduced several ideas that were to become hegemonic in the adoption of structuralist and poststructuralist thought in the anglophone academy: that speech and writing are subjects of discourse rather than expressions of authorial autonomy; that systems of ideas drive the major actors in intellectual history rather than the other way around; and that the metaphysics of presence is undercut by the operations of the unconscious, the absence of the transcendental signifier, and so on.43 Edward Said was profoundly influenced by his participation in the event, and its effect on scholarly discourse was significant.

What is germane here is that structuralism and post-structuralism introduced a range of tools by which to analyze literary texts in the context of language, ideology, culture, and so on, and their effectiveness partly hinged on the application of close reading techniques. Each of deconstruction, psychoanalytic criticism, semiology, French feminist theory, and New Historicism demand close attention to the way various codes are installed within literary language, requiring what has come to be known as a “hermeneutics of suspicion” or “paranoid reading” to reveal these dimensions of the text to the reader.44 In his foundational work published in 1967, De la grammatologie, Derrida performs a deconstructive reading of structuralist linguistics through a close reading of Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale, and develops his theory of the supplement by way of an extremely detailed reading of Rousseau’s “Essai sur l’origine des langues.” Derrida’s extensive oeuvre demonstrates variety in its subject matter and approach, yet he deploys a consistent method to the analysis of concepts—presence, erasure, archive, and so on—by examining their origins and the conditions of their use, demonstrating that with sufficient pressure, a rift will open up to show that the discourse in questions contains the conditions of its own contradiction. This method bears echoes of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, yet its careful linguistic analysis always draws it back to the processes of close reading.

Derrida’s approach to textuality profoundly influenced North American literary scholarship, particularly the so-called “Yale School” of Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller, and, for a time, Harold Bloom. This influence extended to the techniques of reading and evaluating literature. Paul de Man noted the continuities between New Criticism and deconstructive literary theory in their shared close reading practices: “a straightforward report on the present state of literary theory in the United States would have to stress the emphasis on reading, a direction which is already present, moreover, in the New Critical traditions of the forties and fifties.”45 The turn from matters of aesthetics to those of linguistics—bearing a connection with philology that deserves fuller examination—meant reading closely for ruptures in the logic and rhetoric of the text’s discourse in a deployment of the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” The Yale School had its greatest impact in the 1970s and 1980s, and unusually for theory-driven literary analysis, gave much of its focus to close readings of Romantic poetry.46 Several of these have become classics of the genre, such as J. Hillis Miller’s “The Critic as Host”—dealing with the various etymologies of “host,” chains of signification that defy singular meaning, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “The Triumph of Life”—and Geoffrey Hartman’s “The Interpreter’s Freud,” which applies Freud’s idea of free association in dreams to a reading of Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal” to reveal a rich polysemy beneath an otherwise integral text surface.47

Critical approaches to literature in the age of theory tend to pair close reading techniques with interpretive methods driven by the “hermeneutics of suspicion”: reading against the grain of the text, observing “symptoms” of a submerged discourse that throws the text surface into relief, analyzing the rhetorical and conceptual structure of a text to find its blind spots and points of contradiction. This model, in which the text surface is layered upon its uncanny depths, adapts some of the key themes of psychoanalysis (for example, dreams, the unconscious, and linguistic slippage), and proves to be a fertile model for a wide range of discursive explorations. One of the more foundational texts in theory-driven literary analysis is Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious published in 1981, in which the political perspective is not one method of reading literature among others, but “the absolute horizon of all reading and all interpretation.”48 Analysis thus centers upon the assemblage of specific codes or concepts that clarify where and how ideology operates within literary texts. More generally, the approach of symptomatic reading that was to become the dominant form in the 1980s proceeds by examining dialectical pairs of concepts such as presence/absence, surface/depth, and manifest/latent, where the role of interpreter is to foreground codes that were otherwise repressed or unspoken. Such procedures are prone to what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick terms “paranoid readings,” in which interpretation is engaged in an inescapable process of doubling in a “drama of exposure.” Instead, an alternate interpretive strategy of reparative reading considers the text as a source for replenishment rather than an object of critique.49

New Historicism represents another style of close reading in literary scholarship, in which texts (or textual fragments) are read as embedded in their material networks and cultural contexts. Drawing on intellectual history and cultural studies, such texts in the genre as Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions examines how travel narratives, judicial documents, and other source texts embody a sense of the “marvelous” in the service of colonial appropriation in the early modern period in the New World. Other texts in the genre, such as Stephen Orgel’s The Authentic Shakespeare, operate by a mode of “thick description,” in which literary production is shown to be deeply entrenched in prevailing social and economic conditions. Orgel places Shakespeare’s dramatic works in the historical context of a deeply collaborative theater in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Ages, replacing the image of the writer of genius with that of a well-trained and highly competent guild craftsman.50 New Historicism represents a different kind of close reading in its focus on the constitutive elements of a written text within the wider contexts in which is it produced, thus “reading” social and economic formations with equal assiduity. A case could be made for numerous modes of theory-driven literary scholarship to be considered forms of close reading, such as postcolonial literary criticism, queer and feminist literary criticism, and cognitive literary criticism, among others. Close attention to the particularities of texts has driven literary analysis throughout history, but perhaps the distinction in the theory and post-theory landscapes since the 1960s is the attention given to other intellectual and social structures as means by which to generate meaning, or to show how meaning is networked between texts and their contexts.

The commonalities shared by theory-driven and empirically-based methods of close reading raise interesting questions concerning how discursive and ideological positions toward literary texts tend to rely on a stock of reading methods. In their aptly subtitled anthology Close Reading: The Reader, Frank Lentricchia and Andrew DuBois divide their chosen excerpts into two groups, representing “formalist” and “non-formalist” or “political” modes of reading respectively, but which find common ground in their shared attention to the close examination of literary texture.51 The first group, “Formalism (Plus),” contains some of the most influential American New Critical essays by John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Kenneth Burke, and R. P. Blackmur, as well as close readings by a later generation of scholars not identified as New Critics but who engage closely with textual detail in the prosecution of their arguments, such as Helen Vendler and Stanley Fish. The second group, “After Formalism?” demonstrates the methodological suitability of close reading to the articulation of certain kinds of literary theory, with essays by Paul de Man, Roland Barthes, Fredric Jameson, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Houston A. Baker Jr., and Homi Bhabha. This group also includes representative essays from the methodological viewpoints of New Historicism and Distant Reading. Although this volume almost exclusively comprises work by North American scholars, it demonstrates the portability and suppleness of close reading techniques.

Barbara Herrnstein Smith draws attention to the reading strategies common to much of Anglo-American literary analysis over the 20th century—from historical philology to New Criticism to deconstruction—where variations in target texts, the discourses motivating critical inquiry, and the dispositions of inquiry all tend to rest on close textual examination.52 The calls to professionalize literary criticism by Ransom and others sought its systematization and accreditation in university academic programs, where it quickly became the core of humanistic study in the middle decades of the last century. From an identifiably narrow canon of texts—with Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Donne, Wordsworth, Keats, George Eliot, and T. S. Eliot at its center—the pressures of other methodological approaches on the canon pointed to matters of scale and the purposes of interpretation: “As literary studies have been pursued under the auspices of structuralism, semiotics, New Historicism, deconstruction, feminism, critical race theory, postcolonial criticism, and queer theory, the types and cultural status of the texts examined by literary scholars and read closely in their classrooms have continuously expanded.”53 How do professional readers of literature respond to these pressures? Do they persist with the methods of close reading, or do they seek out alternative ways of managing a vastly expanded corpus? The kinds of literary evidence at issue may be looked at from a different vantage, such as surface over depth, or the scale of “data” taken from a text or a corpus might be greatly expanded to establish the existence of patterns (word usage, grammatical features, punctuation) not readily apprehended from “analog” reading processes.

Beyond Close Reading

With the slow waning of theory’s hegemony and the rise of digital methods in literary studies, attention has shifted to the critique of close reading as a method that privileges certain kinds of literary evidence and epistemological modes. The reading strategies most closely associated with Paul Ricoeur’s phrase “the hermeneutics of suspicion” are taken to task for implicit assumptions of value and the role of “evidence” in literary understanding: namely, that the pursuit of underlying discourse by means of its “symptoms” or coded proxies at the text’s surface is to be prized above reading a text at face value, which as a consequence becomes a naïve undertaking. The roots of such a mode of reading are traced to Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche—Ricoeur’s “masters of suspicion”—who each warn against surface meaning and seek out more difficult or unpalatable truths by reading against the grain of the text.54 The challenge to the hermeneutics of suspicion takes a variety of forms, but might be conveniently classed under the rubric of postcritique. As a mode of reading postcritique seeks alternatives to interpretation as the primary goal of scholarly interaction with literary texts. This draws on a heritage that includes Susan Sontag’s 1966 essay “Against Interpretation,” which extols an erotics of art in place of hermeneutics,55 as well as Barthes’s Le plaisir du texte of 1973 in its distinction between pleasure in readerly texts and jouissance in writerly texts—the former retaining a stable subject position and the latter fracturing or liberating it.

A primary aim of postcritique is to recuperate dimensions of the reading experience excluded or ignored by conventional critical exegesis and analysis.56 The ubiquity of critique in literary studies must first be recognized—Rita Felski describes it as “a thought style that slices across differences of field and discipline”57—and its function as the dominant metalanguage in the discipline understood as potentially limiting. Felski sees the application of critique as a frequent mistaking of “a part of thought with the whole of thought, and that in doing so we are scanting a range of intellectual and expressive possibilities.”58 The manner in which critique positions the reader in relation to a text is one of congenital skepticism, and even though its operations include modes of close reading, critique forces an ironic separation of reader and text—the cold, critical eye. By installing this kind of approach to the text, critique becomes a “regime of thought.” Postcritique instead centers its operations on the reading experience, whereby affect and somatic response play central parts in interpretation in place of a detached analytic rigor. Postcritique keeps open a depth model of reading—not relegated to the text’s surface but able to identify deeper patterns of imagery or theme—and is consistent with the practices of close reading. Felski’s model of postcritique draws on the work of Bruno Latour, particularly by reconfiguring hermeneutics not as a sign of human mastery over a world of objects, but rather as a mode of engagement in a network of actors. She also develops the thought of such French critics as Marielle Macé and Yves Citton, in which reading is not a separation from life but an “embodied mode of attentiveness,” and where interpretation is a process of textual reinvention that exercises analytic and affective processes of understanding the text’s details.59

The depth model of knowledge implicit in the “hermeneutics of suspicion” has also been challenged by different strategies collected under the rubric of surface reading.60 This term describes approaches to literary texts that draw on methods from anthropology, history, political science, and cognate disciplines, themselves drawing on methods of close reading brought about by the “linguistic turn” of the 1970s.61 Broadly speaking, surface reading rejects the kinds of symptomatic reading that have dominated modern criticism, taking exception to Fredric Jameson’s view of ideology in his Political Unconscious: namely, that it relies on and is constituted by an essential lack of transparency. Surface reading aims to read texts on different terms than those of “suspicion” or an imperative to decode. Rather, it takes the text surface on its own terms. Close reading methods remain essential—a text’s meaning is revealed by close attention to its language and form. Surface reading is thus not a variety of close reading per se, but a collection of practices that each force an evaluation of what kinds of close reading are deployed and to what purposes. Surface reading tends to a position of anti-instrumentalism, but rather than an acquiescence into quietism, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus “want to reclaim from this tradition the accent on immersion in texts (without paranoia or suspicion about their merit or value), for we understand that attentiveness to the artwork as itself a kind of freedom.”62 This non-purposive aim of literary reading aligns with Sedgwick’s notion of reparative reading in its foreclosure on paranoid or coded readings, but may concede too much ground in its avoidance of ideology critique and other modes of situating texts within larger linguistic and cultural contexts.

Close reading operates by circumscription (this text, not others) and dilation (intensive focus on language, imagery, historical reference, and so on). But how might literary studies attempt to understand literature as a social phenomenon, as something shared in various social networks, distributed across languages and geography, produced in a commodity economy of publishing, and as a factor in national economies and self-imaginings? Some of these questions are aided by developments in information storage and data manipulation, such as photographic or digital archives of popular fiction, newspapers, and magazines, and databases tracking the number and distribution of publications within and between nations. This incursion of big data into the fields of bibliography and book history has invoked different forms of reading. No longer primarily concentrated on linguistic and formal elements for the purposes of interpretation, distant reading investigates the composition of literary corpora (such as modes of narration and characterological features in novels, the relative distribution and frequency of poetic genres and of other literary or linguistic features), as well as larger movements in literary discourse such as the distribution over time and across geographic zones of literary modes (the novel, drama) and of proxies for reading such as sales figures and library circulation records.

The concept of distant reading is most closely associated with the work of Franco Moretti who outlined the problem of canon formation and the limits of reading in his essay “Conjectures on World Literature” in 2000.63 Those limits not only concern the sheer volume of literary publication—there is not time enough for adequate coverage of any literary genre—but also relate to method, where close reading performs a series of procedures evaluated for their insight and competency. Moretti’s long-standing colleague at the Stanford Literary Lab, Matthew Wilkens, describes a problem in which literary studies has a “single working method [. . .] the need to perform always and only close reading as a means of cultural analysis.”64 Rather than one paradigm dominating scholarly engagement with literary texts in this way, he advocates a valuation of literature “as indicators of larger cultural issues” where reading at scale rather than by a process of selectivity brings about a different kind of emphasis in reading literary texts. This view understates the variety and efficacy of critical approaches at the scale of individual works of literature, but its main aim is to advocate for such techniques as bibliometrics, data mining, quantitative analysis, geospatial analysis, economics of the book trade at national and global levels, and other measures of literary consumption at scales exceeding analog empirical research methods.

Moretti’s and Wilkens’s practices of distant reading entail the deployment of digital scholarly methods to evaluate aspects of literary history such as the frequency, distribution, and location of literary publishing (in general and by genre, gender, nationality, and other categories). Literary, periodical, and publishing databases have proven effective in widening and deepening the understanding of text production and circulation. One striking example is Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field, in which Katherine Bode mines the AustLit database to examine how the 19th-century Australian novel was transmitted internationally, often in periodical form prior to book publication.65 In A World of Fiction, Bode provides a nuanced and comprehensive critique of Moretti’s use of big data in his formulations of literary history in Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History and Distant Reading. The conflation of data with “fact” rather than as already interpreted information leads Moretti to “present literary data and digital collections as pre-critical, stable, and self-evident,” and betrays a tendency to gloss over methodological gaps, which blunts the effectiveness of his approach.66 The role of data mining methods in literary studies has received mounting critical scrutiny in the 2010s—coinciding with a reassessment of the digital humanities job market in higher education—particularly the tendency to overlook assumptions of gender, race, disability, economic status, and other embodied ways that scholars approach the field. In these critical assessments, distant reading loses the hermeneutic nuance and contextual richness of close reading methods, but it also blunts many of the pressing issues of equity and access that impinge upon digitally mediated literary scholarship.67

How Close Is Too Close?

The various methods of close reading seek to derive evidence from the text as a foundation for interpretive arguments. These arguments often extend well beyond the text material itself, taking in historical, linguistic, philosophical, political, and intertextual discourses. Yet at the center of these arguments can be found the vocabularies, image networks, rhetorical strategies, and other elements of the text’s language. Are there practical or formal limits to the degree of intensity of a close reading? At what point does a focus on the minutiae of a text distort the larger discourses and hermeneutic networks to which it belongs, or against which it chafes? Taking the example of poetry—language charged with meaning in highly concentrated form—close reading takes for its subject patterns of sound, imagery, metaphor, as well as word-choice, rhyme scheme, and larger patterns. A highly concentrated close reading might evaluate etymology, slippages between languages and dialects, punctuation, and intertextual echoes embedded in sound as well as direct allusion. Yet close reading might extend to matters of bibliography as much as to verbal material: illuminated capitals, paper quality (or parchment, or papyrus), types of binding, the form of the book (codex, scroll, loose leaves), methods of printing (hot metal, photographic offset), and other material aspects of the text that contribute directly to its meaning.68 Such loving attention to detail is ripe for parody, most famously exploited in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire, in which John Shade’s 999-line poem of that name is overwhelmed by the antic commentary of his nemesis Charles Kinbote. While Kinbote’s obsessions continually lead away from his target text—comprising much of the comedy and pathos of the novel—the capacity for close reading to generate critical discourse is not in dispute, particularly when the attentions of critics to this novel are taken into account.

The English poet J. H. Prynne engages in what might be called extremely close reading in a series of poetic studies: They That Haue Powre to Hurt: A Specimen of a Commentary on Shake-speares Sonnets, 94 (2001), Field Notes: “The Solitary Reaper” and others (2007), George Herbert, Love III: A Discursive Commentary (2011), and Graft and Corruption: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15 (2015). Each text takes one poem as its focus—Sonnet 94 is given 86 pages of commentary, “The Solitary Reaper” 135 pages, “Love III” 92 pages, and Sonnet 15 is given 74 pages—and engages in intensely close reading using the method of line commentary.69 The etymology and intertextual references embedded in individual words are read within a discursive context of social, political, scientific, literary historical, and bibliographic information, and a variety of interpretive possibilities is negotiated as a consequence of this process. These exercises in commentary demonstrate the embeddedness of texts within linguistic and social discourses, showing how deeply enmeshed verbal images and individual words are within their histories. Rather than abutting the limits of close reading, Prynne’s commentaries illustrate what lies beyond the foothills of most conventional close readings.

Discussion of the Literature

The prehistory of modern literary close reading practices is wide-ranging, taking in scriptural exegesis of the world’s major religions, the interpretation of written legal documents—and between these two categories a large part of the history of textuality per se—as well as classical philology and historical criticism. The history of interpretation of Abrahamic sacred texts is given a systematic overview in Jacob Neusner’s Introduction to Rabbinic Literature, Walid A. Saleh’s The Formation of the Classical Tafsīr Tradition: The Qur’ān Commentary of al-Tha’labī (d. 427/1035), and The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, edited by Susan Ashbrook and David G. Hunter, as well as the three-volume History of Biblical Interpretation edited by Alan J. Hauser and Duane F. Watson. Renewed interest in the history and methods of classical philology is represented in the excellent study by James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. For non-Western traditions of philology the collection of essays World Philology, edited by Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin A. Elman, and Ku-ming Kevin is an indispensable resource.

Techniques of close reading in modern literary studies arose in reaction to narrow historicist or biographical modes of literary interpretation. Roland Barthes’s S/Z captures the dexterity of semiological methods by breaking a literary text into small sections or lexias and reading them through various “codes.” The dominant modes of close reading in 20th-century university literature departments were associated with New Criticism on both sides of the Atlantic. The British manifestation was varied: I. A. Richards set out his classroom methods of analysis in Practical Criticism, his student William Empson set out a program of close reading that combined formal analysis with historical context in Seven Types of Ambiguity and Some Versions of Pastoral, and F. R. Leavis turned his attention to matters of technique in New Bearings in English Poetry and to a formal-historical analysis of prose in The Great Tradition and The Common Pursuit. Perhaps the central text of New Critical close reading, and even of modern literary criticism, is T. S. Eliot’s collection of essays The Scared Wood. New Criticism in the United States was shaped by two books co-authored by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks: Understanding Poetry and Understanding Fiction. Brooks’s essays on poetry, The Well Wrought Urn, also became a staple guide to literary analysis in a rapidly expanding academy following the Second World War.

Following a hegemonic generation (or two) of New Critical approaches to literature, the influence of French literary and critical theory upon reading methods became pronounced from the 1960s onward. Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie not only brought new methods to bear on literary analysis—writing under erasure, différance, the supplement—it also engaged with intensive modes of close reading, avowing its own intellectual origins in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale and bringing that text’s analysis of the linguistic sign into sharp focus. This intensive attention to the structure of language also opened the way for close reading that sought to reveal codes of meaning within texts that often ran against the grain of the surface narrative. These methods drew on psychoanalysis, feminist theory, queer theory, Marxist criticism, postcolonial theory, and other discourses to show how meaning operates in complex and often contradictory ways. The resonance with a New Critical emphasis on irony and paradox has become a topic of greater interest since the waning—or at least dispersion—of theory’s influence. This complicated history is examined in the essay collection Close Reading: The Reader, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Andrew Dubois.

The impact of theory on close reading practices in anglophone higher education institutions is profound, particularly in the adoption of Paul Ricoeur’s notion of the “hermeneutics of suspicion” set out in De l’interprétation. Essai sur Sigmund Freud. Among the innumerable applications of this notion to literary interpretation, perhaps Fredric Jameson’s Political Unconscious has had the furthest reach, combining Ricoeur’s notion with the methods of Marxist critique. Reading against the grain of the text is especially suited to psychoanalytic close reading—beginning with Freud’s own case studies—as well as ideology critique, feminist and queer reading practices, and postcolonial criticism. New Historicism provides a sharp example of how close reading of historical documents can be turned to this effect, and such examples as Stephen Greenblatt’s Marvelous Possessions and Stephen Orgel’s The Authentic Shakespeare provide elegant case studies. The ubiquity of “suspicious” reading in literary studies and cognate disciplines led to a counter-movement in close reading practices in which the jouissance of a reading experience would take precedence, drawing on Barthes’s classic Le plaisir du texte as well as Susan Sontag’s essay, “Against Interpretation.” This celebration of a textual “erotics” produced a queer mode of reparative reading, enunciated in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s landmark essay, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction Is about You.”

From the beginning of the 21st century a number of alternative modes of reading have arisen in general dissatisfaction with close reading as the prime mode of textual engagement in literary studies. Rita Felski’s Limits of Critique has established a provocative agenda for post-critical accounts of reading in which somatic and affective resources count as much as cognitive and analytic modes of textual apprehension. In their Introduction to a 2009 special issue of Representations, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus set out a case for surface reading, in which a non-purposive reading mode attends to textual detail, but not in service of any discursive agenda. Other ways of reading sought distance form the matter of literary texts in favor of larger systems of publication, distribution, and circulation made quantifiable and thus put into the service of data analysis. The methods of distant reading have computational analysis of “big data” at their center, most prominently captured in Franco Moretti’s work, including in particular Graphs, Maps, Trees and Distant Reading. This quantified approach to literary analysis has drawn widespread criticism from scholars operating within the digital humanities as well as those in the business of a more typical literary interpretation—demonstrating rather efficiently that close reading describes any sustained engagement with a literary text, attentive to its technical and affective structures, and without which one cannot be said to have read literature in any meaningful sense.

Links to Digital Materials

Not surprisingly the application of digital methods in distant reading is well represented in digital resources, as are the various critiques of distant reading as it has been practiced. The following is a brief list of essential starting points in this ongoing and complicated discourse:

Further Reading

  • Anker, Elizabeth S., and Rita Felski. “Introduction.” In Critique and Postcritique. Edited by Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski, 1–28. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.
  • Barthes, Roland. S/Z: An Essay. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill & Wang, 1974.
  • Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Hill & Wang, 1975.
  • Best, Stephen, and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 1–2.
  • Bode, Katherine. Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field. London: Anthem, 2014.
  • Brooks, Cleanth. The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947.
  • de Man, Paul. “The Resistance to Theory.” Yale French Studies 63 (1982): 3–20.
  • Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  • Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Methuen, 1920.
  • Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. London: Chatto & Windus, 1930.
  • Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral. London: Chatto & Windus, 1935.
  • Empson, William. The Face of the Buddha. Edited by Rupert Richard Arrowsmith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Felski, Rita. The Limits of Critique. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  • Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon, 1971.
  • Goodrich, Peter. Reading the Law: A Critical Introduction to Legal Method and Techniques. London: Blackwell, 1986.
  • Gorke, Andreas, and Johanna Pink, eds. Tafsīr and Islamic Intellectual History: Exploring the Boundaries of a Genre. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvellous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
  • Hartman, Geoffrey. “The Interpreter’s Freud.” In Easy Pieces, 137–154. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
  • Hauser, Alan J., and Duane F. Watson, eds. The History of Biblical Interpretation. 3 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008, 2018, and 2017.
  • Herrnstein Smith, Barbara. “What Was ‘Close Reading’?: A Century of Method in Literary Studies.” Minnesota Review 87 (2016): 57–75.
  • Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
  • Leavis, Frank Raymond. New Bearings in English Poetry. London: Chatto & Windus, 1932.
  • Leavis, Frank Raymond. The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. London: Chatto & Windus, 1948.
  • Leavis, Frank Raymond. The Common Pursuit. London: Chatto & Windus, 1952.
  • Lentricchia, Frank, and Andrew Dubois, eds. Close Reading: The Reader. Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Litz, A. Walton, Louis Menand, and Lawrence Rainey, eds. The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume 7: Modernism and the New Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Lönnroth, Harry, ed. Philology Matters! Essays on the Art of Reading Slowly. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017.
  • Marx, William. The Hatred of Literature. Translated by Nicholas Elliott. Cambridge, MA, and London, UK: Harvard University Press, 2018.
  • Miller, J. Hillis. “The Critic as Host.” Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (1977): 439–447.
  • Moretti, Franco. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review 1 (2000): 54–68.
  • Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History. London: Verso, 2005.
  • Moretti, Franco. Distant Reading. London: Verso, 2013.
  • Neusner, Jacob. Introduction to Rabbinic Literature. New York, NY: Random House, 1994.
  • Norman, Buford. “Explication de texte.” In The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Edited by Stephen Cushman, 472–473. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.
  • Orgel, Stephen. The Authentic Shakespeare and Other Problems of the Early Modern Stage. New York and Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2002.
  • Pollock, Sheldon, Benjamin A. Elman, and Ku-ming Kevin Chang, eds. World Philology. Cambridge, MA, and London, UK: Harvard University Press, 2015.
  • Ransom, John Crowe. The World’s Body. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938.
  • Ransom, John Crowe. The New Criticism. New York: New Directions, 1941.
  • Richards, I. A. Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment. New York and London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1929.
  • Ricoeur, Paul. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay in Interpretation. Translated by Denis Savage. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.
  • Schleiermacher, Friedrich. Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings. Edited and translated by Andrew Bowie. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction Is about You.” In Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction. Edited by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 1–37. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.
  • Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation.” In Against Interpretation and Other Essays, 13–23. New York: Dell, 1966.
  • Striphas, Ted. The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
  • Tate, Allen. Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936.
  • Turner, James. Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Vendler, Helen. The Breaking of Style. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Warren, Robert Penn, and Cleanth Brooks. Understanding Poetry. New York: Henry Holt, 1938.
  • Warren, Robert Penn, and Cleanth Brooks. Understanding Fiction. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1943.
  • Wimsatt, William K. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1954.


  • 1. Stefan Collini, “The Close Reader,” The Nation (February 1, 2007).

  • 2. “Plain English” was formally instituted as a movement in US legal circles by David Mellinkoff in The Language of the Law (Boston: Little, Brown, 1963).

  • 3. See Mary Boyce, Textual Sources for the Study of Zoroastrianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

  • 4. See Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles E. Moore, eds., A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967).

  • 5. For a brief overview of the history of Shijing scholarship and its modern manifestations, see Yong Ren, “Traditional Chinese Critics’ Response to the Confucian Exegesis of the Classic of Poetry: A Counter Tradition,” American Journal of Chinese Studies 3, no. 1 (1996): 40–53. On the relation of the written texts of the Shijing to oral performance and musicality, see Achim Mittag, “Change in Shijing Exegesis: Some Notes on the Rediscovery of the Musical Aspect of the ‘Odes’ in the Song Period,” T’oung Pao 79, no. 4–5 (1993): 197–224.

  • 6. For further explication and analysis of these processes of reading and understanding, see the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Literary Theory article “Midrash” by Carol Bakhos. This structure of prolepsis and confirmation anticipates Dante’s system of allegory in his Letter to Can Grande (c. 1314–1316). See Zygmunt G. Barański, “The Epistle to Can Grande,” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 2, The Middle Ages, ed. Alastair Minnis and Ian Johnson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 583–589. See also the Oxford Classical Dictionary article “Midrash” by Martin Goodman.

  • 7. For a comprehensive overview of the canon of rabbinic texts, see Jacob Neusner, Introduction to Rabbinic Literature (New York: Random House, 1994).

  • 8. For an overview of scriptural interpretation and the history of its methods, see Frances M. Young, “Interpretation of Scripture,” in The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, ed. Susan Ashbrook and David G. Hunter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 845–863.

  • 9. Young, “Interpretation of Scripture,” 850. For a comprehensive account of the reception and interpretation of the Bible in the early church and the development of patristic exegesis, see Charles Kannengiesser, ed., Handbook of Patristic Exegesis, 2 vols. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004).

  • 10. Tia M. Kolbaba, “Byzantine Orthodox Exegesis,” in The New Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 2, From 600 to 1450, ed. Richard Marsden and E. Ann Matter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 485–504 [485].

  • 11. Carl R. Trueman, “Scripture and Exegesis in Early Modern Reformed Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theology, 1600–1800, ed. Ulrich L. Lehner, Richard A. Muller, and A. G. Roeber (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 179–194 [179].

  • 12. For an overview of these developments, see Joseph G. Prior, The Historical Critical Method in Catholic Exegesis (Rome, Italy: Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 1999).

  • 13. Walid A. Saleh, The Formation of the Classical Tafsīr Tradition: The Qur’ān Commentary of al-Tha’labī (d. 427/1035) (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2004), 16.

  • 14. See Martha T. Roth, trans., Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Williston, VT: Society of Biblical Literature, 1997). The Code of Hammurabi may be the most celebrated, but older codes exist, such as the Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2050 bce) and the Code of Lipit-Ištar (c. 1870 bce), and the Akkadian Laws of Eshunna (c. 1930 bce).

  • 15. See Michael Gagarin and David Cohen, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Paul J. du Plessis, Clifford Ando, and Laius Tuori, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Roman Law and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020); and Bernard Stolte, “Byzantine Law: The Law of the New Rome,” in The Oxford Handbook of European Legal History, ed. Heikki Pihlajamäki, Markus D. Dubber, and Mark Godfrey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 229–248.

  • 16. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2011), 91–92.

  • 17. There is a substantial literature on the topic of legal critical reading. Peter Goodrich sets out the case for reading law as a specialized secular practice derived from priestly interpretation of sacred texts in Reading the Law: A Critical Introduction to Legal Method and Techniques (London: Blackwell, 1986); and Jane Bloom Grisé sets out a range of techniques for reading case content, evaluating and synthesizing cases, and dealing with unclear legal text in Critical Reading for Success in Law School and Beyond (Eagan, MN: West Academic, 2017).

  • 18. This treatment of philology is necessarily brief, serving to demonstrate historical continuities of close reading methods. Its focus on Western philological methods bypasses discussion of extensive philological traditions in non-Western contexts, such as the Chinese and Sanskrit traditions. For an overview of the global range of philological practices, see World Philology, ed. Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin A. Elman, and Ku-ming Kevin Chang (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).

  • 19. For an excellent account of this history, see James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).

  • 20. The application of philological methods to scholarly inquiry in the 21st century is explored in the essay collection Philology Matters! Essays on the Art of Reading Slowly, ed. Henry Lönnroth (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston, MA: Brill, 2017).

  • 21. See Buford Norman, “Explication de texte,” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Stephen Cushman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 472–473.

  • 22. For a contemporary account of Lanson’s profound influence upon French literary scholarship, see Jean-Albert Bédé, “Gustave Lanson,” The American Scholar 4, no. 3 (1935): 286–291. For a defense of Lanson’s methods against claims of narrow positivism—claims leveled by Roland Barthes among others—see Nabil Araújo de Souza, “Revisão do Lansonismo: O Cientificismo Brando de Gustave Lanson e a Perpetuação Acadêmica da História Literária,” [Review of Lansonism: Gustave Lanson’s Scientificism and the Academic Perpetuation of Literary History] Revista de Letras 52, no. 2 (2012): 95–112.

  • 23. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin, ed. Perry Meisel and Haun Saussy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). The standard French text is Cours de linguistique générale, ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye (Paris: Payot, 1971). Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John Russell (London: Hutchinson & Co, 1961). This was originally published as Tristes Tropiques (Paris: Plon, 1955).

  • 24. See Lucy O’Meara, Roland Barthes at the Collège de France (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012).

  • 25. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana Press, 1977), 142–148 [148].

  • 26. Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 18–20. This was originally published as S/Z (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1970).

  • 27. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York, NY: Hill & Wang, 1975). This was originally published as Le plaisir du texte (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973).

  • 28. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Pantheon, 1971). This was originally published as Les Mots et les choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1966). Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976). This was originally published as De la grammatologie (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1967).

  • 29. “Hamlet and His Problems” and “Phillip Massinger” were collected in T. S. Eliot’s The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (London: Methuen, 1920). “Andrew Marvell” was first published in the Times Literary Supplement, March 31, 1921, followed by “The Metaphysical Poets” in the issue of October 20, 1921.

  • 30. I. A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment (New York and London: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1929), 3.

  • 31. Richards, Practical Criticism, 6.

  • 32. Snow first presented the thesis of the “two cultures” in the 1959 Sir Robert Rede Lecture at Cambridge University, subsequently published as The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1959). Leavis’s rebuttal appeared in an essay of March 9, 1962, in the Spectator, and was published in The Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow (London: Chatto & Windus, 1962). The controversy attracted an enormous amount of critical response then and subsequently. For a useful overview of this history, see Guy Ortolano, “Two Cultures, One University: The Institutional Origins of the ‘Two Cultures’ Controversy,” Albion 34, no. 4 (2002): 606–624.

  • 33. In New Bearings, Leavis conducts a dismantling of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, arguing instead that Mauberley is his great poem. Pound had already published “How To Read”—his own manifesto on the merits of close reading—in the New York Herald Tribune in 1929, glossing a curriculum of literature (poetry, drama, prose) ancient and modern, including the complete works of Confucius. Leavis took issue with Pound’s approach—using literary examples as illustrative rather than evidentiary, and prioritizing technique over sensibility—in How to Teach Reading: A Primer for Ezra Pound (Cambridge, UK: Minority Press, 1932). Pound expanded his material in ABC of Reading (London: Routledge, 1934), which functioned as a primer for students, extolling direct engagement with the literary text rather than relying upon criticism, but also the development of a historical and cultural awareness of each text’s significance. This text also adverted to Pound’s theory of language and meaning: phanopoeia (images stimulating the visual imagination), melopoeia (sound), and logopoeia (“the dance of the intellect among words”). Pound thus occupied a sui generis critical position, but one that overlapped with each of Eliot, Richards, Leavis, and Empson. For further consideration of Pound’s critical pedagogy, see Elizabeth Pender, “Exemplarity and Quotation: Ezra Pound’s How to Read, Modernist Criticism, and the Limits of Close Reading,” Critical Quarterly 61, no. 1 (2019): 67–81.

  • 34. Mark Jancovich, “The Southern New Critics,” in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 7, Modernism and the New Criticism, ed. A. Walton Litz, Louis Menand, and Lawrence Rainey (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 200–218 [205].

  • 35. See, for example, Cleanth Brooks, “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” in The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947), 176–196.

  • 36. This word enters into the New Critical vocabulary by way of William K. Wimsatt’s coinage in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1954).

  • 37. John Crowe Ransom, “Criticism, Inc.,” Virginia Quarterly Review 13 (1937): 586–602.

  • 38. Much of this history was captured soon after the program ended, in John Alden Jamieson, Books for the Army: The Army Library Service in the Second World War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950). Beth Luey places the Army Library Service in a wider context of publishing in the United States in “The Organization of the Book Publishing Industry,” in A History of the Book in America, Volume 5: The Enduring Book: Print Culture in Postwar America, ed. David Paul Nord, Joan Shelley Rubin, and Michael Schudson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 29–54.

  • 39. Brooks, “Preface,” in The Well Wrought Urn, n.p.

  • 40. Brooks, “Keats’s Sylvan Historian: History without Footnotes,” in The Well Wrought Urn, 139.

  • 41. Murray Krieger provides an inflection to Brooks’s claim, stating the Keats’s poem is metapoetic, bringing into existence a poetics in its ekphrastic play between space (the urn and its pictorial depictions) and time (poetic utterance). See Murray Krieger, “The Ekphrastic Principle and the Still Movement of Poetry; or Laokoön Revisited,” in Close Reading: The Reader, ed. Frank Lentricchia and Andrew Dubois (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2003), 88–110.

  • 42. See Helen Vendler, The Breaking of Style (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 6.

  • 43. The talks were collected, translated, and published in The Structuralist Controversy: The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, ed. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970). The volume also contains essays by Gilles Deleuze, Gérard Genette, and Roman Jakobson, who were unable to attend the conference.

  • 44. Paul Ricoeur dubbed Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as founders of the “school of suspicion” (école du soupçon) in his De l’interprétation. Essai sur Sigmund Freud [Interpretation. Essay on Sigmund Freud] (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1965). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick coined the cognate term “paranoid reading” to describe reading “against the grain” of a text to reveal hidden patterns of meaning. See Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction Is about You,” in Novel Gazing: Queer Readings in Fiction, ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 1–37.

  • 45. Paul de Man, “The Resistance to Theory,” Yale French Studies 63 (1982): 3–20 [18].

  • 46. For a fuller account of the Yale School and its methodologies, see Marc Redfield, Theory at Yale: The Strange Case of Deconstruction in America (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015).

  • 47. J. Hillis Miller, “The Critic as Host,” Critical Inquiry 3, no. 3 (1977): 439–447; and Geoffrey Hartman, “The Interpreter’s Freud,” in Easy Pieces (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 137–154.

  • 48. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 17.

  • 49. Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading,” 1–37.

  • 50. Stephen Greenblatt, Marvellous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); and Stephen Orgel, The Authentic Shakespeare and Other Problems of the Early Modern Stage (New York and Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2002).

  • 51. Frank Lentricchia and Andrew DuBois, eds., Close Reading: The Reader (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2003). The rationale is set out in the unpaginated Preface.

  • 52. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, “What Was ‘Close Reading’?: A Century of Method in Literary Studies,” Minnesota Review 87 (2016): 57–75.

  • 53. Smith, “What Was ‘Close Reading’?”: 65.

  • 54. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay in Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 32; translation of De l’interprétation. Essai sur Sigmund Freud (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1965).

  • 55. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Dell, 1966), 13–23. Roland Barthes, Le plaisir du texte (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973).

  • 56. For a comprehensive overview of the limits of critique and the ways postcritique seeks to remedy them, see Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski, “Introduction,” in Critique and Postcritique, ed. Elizabeth S. Anker and Rita Felski (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 1–28.

  • 57. Rita Felski, The Limits of Critique (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 2.

  • 58. Felski, The Limits of Critique, 5.

  • 59. Felski, The Limits of Critique, 175–178.

  • 60. See Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Representations 108, no. 1 (2009): 1–21. This journal special issue comprises the central statement of surface reading’s aims and practices, as well as demonstrating the variety of approaches gathered under its name.

  • 61. See Judith Serkis, “When Was the Linguistic Turn? A Genealogy,” The American Historical Review 117, no. 3 (2012): 700–722.

  • 62. Best and Marcus, “Surface Reading: An Introduction”: 16.

  • 63. Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” New Left Review 1 (2000): 54–68.

  • 64. See Matthew Wilkens, “Canons, Close Reading, and the Evolution of Method,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 249–258 [251].

  • 65. Katherine Bode, Reading by Numbers: Recalibrating the Literary Field (London: Anthem, 2012).

  • 66. Katherine Bode, A World of Fiction: Digital Collections and the Future of Literary History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018), 20–21.

  • 67. For a survey of these discussions and critiques, see Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and the Digital Humanities, ed. Elizabeth Losh and Jacqueline Wernimont (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

  • 68. For a virtuoso example of this method of close reading, see Jerome J. McGann, Black Riders: The Visible Language of Modernism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

  • 69. Prynne’s commentaries demonstrate how the forms of close reading are as important as the material they yield: line commentary, which has a deep philological history stemming from the scholia of classical antiquity (themselves preceded by Mesopotamian commentaries of the first millennium bce), and the line-by-line procedure adapted in the 9th century by John Scottus Eriugena to his reading of Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii [The Marriage of Philosophy and Mercury], one of the most influential texts of the entire Middle Ages. Eriugena’s method became a standard scholarly procedure in the Middle Ages. It informed later scholiasts in the early modern period, as well as modern scholars such as William Empson, whose commentary on Sonnet 94 in Some Versions of Pastoral (1935) serves as a major framing reference for Prynne’s treatment of the same poem. For Eriugena’s line commentary see Dermot Moran, The Philosophy of John Scottus Eriugena: A Study of Idealism in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 38–45.