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Making meaning through close reading

An introduction to close reading and what we will be doing on this course.
Interpreting a literary text engages us in different ways. We examine it in terms of the particular material conditions which produced it. For instance, as a single poem, as an essay for sale, as a pamphlet, or a play script. We might take a particular approach to literature, to look at it as history, as style, as popular culture. But most importantly, when we interpret a work of literature, we read it in a different way from how we generally read. We will ask you to read, and then go back to reread the text to focus specifically on particular details of language, to uncover layers of meaning in the text. This is Close Reading. So why read a text closely?
Well Close Reading gives us a deeper understanding of what a text could mean. It forces us to look carefully at the language to make better sense of the text. Not everyone will have the same interpretation, so it will be important to take part in discussions and see what others think. While there isn’t necessarily a right answer, there are better answers, and there are less convincing ones. Why is it part of this course? The more you practise Close Reading, the more adept you’ll become and the more you’ll be able to get out of any text in your day-to-day reading. You can come back to this step at any time to check your understanding of Close Reading.
We’ll use three phases in our Close Reading. We read first to discover the general meaning of the text. The general meaning might include an impression of the narrative, a tone of voice, a sense of the character, and perhaps a hint of the period a text is set in. Rereading the text involves concentrating our attention on the language and structures of the text to confirm or test the impressions gained in our first reading. We then zoom in to reach a deeper level of meaning and different layers of meaning. Details like word choice, imagery, metaphor, sentence structure, and the arrangement of sounds will provide clues to these meanings.
For Close Reading in this course, we’ll be looking carefully for keywords and phrases in poetry, key passages in prose, and key scenes in drama. The segments we guide you through won’t be too long, but if you have the time and wish to find the whole texts, you will find many of them freely available online. What do we examine? As we read closely, a word, a passage, or a scene will catch our attention. We look for what is unexpected or surprising in the passage. We look for the strikingly apt or especially appropriate. A repeated word may be a keyword or it may point us to keywords. As we read, we make notes.
We may look up words, and we highlight phrases that strike us. Then by using specific words and structures as guides, we link the texts to other texts in the period, and we build our interpretation by placing it in its wider cultural and historical context.

In this video Susan Fitzmaurice, Professor of English Language at the University of Sheffield’s School of English, looks at what we mean by ‘close textual analysis’ or ‘close reading’ and demonstrates how it can help us to explore and understand the literature of the English country house.

This video contains a lot of information, so you might want to pause it, take some notes or replay it to extract more meaning.

You may also want to bookmark this video so that, should you need to, you can come back to this step at any point as you work your way through the weekly literature of the course.

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Literature of the English Country House

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