Close Reading and Sources

Text analysis is something that we all engage in, whether we realize it or not. The term is broad and capacious and encapsulates a variety of different activities. Even something as simple as slowing down when you see a stop sign is a kind of text analysis: doing so means you have parsed the meaning of the words on the sign and reacted accordingly.

Indeed any of the following, related activities are forms of text analysis:

  • Paraphrasing a text
  • Searching for hidden meanings in a text
  • Adapting a text and reflecting on it
  • Examining the details in a text

This last point is worth pausing over: close reading, in particular, is often proclaimed as one of the primary analytical tool of scholars and students in the humanities. To read closely means to give careful attention to the various components that make up a text, ones which cause us to think or feel a certain way about it. Close reading relies on a core principle about the text under study:

  • Everything about the text matters, whether the author intended for it to matter or not.

Consider the following thought experiment. One day you come home to find the following note from your roommate on the counter:

took care of these dishes? Thanks.

Next to the note: dirty dishes. Was your roommate in a hurry and actually asking you to wash dishes? Or were they sarcastically trying to give you grief for not having done your part? Lots of questions. To imagine responses to them you might employ a range of assumptions and interpretations depending on the scenario:

Context: you have been growing more and more irritated with your roommate for some time now. Their actions just really get under your skin: dirty dishes, laundry everywhere, the works. They clearly meant the note as an insult.

Author: your roommate is actually a great person and would never leave a passive aggressive note. In fact, they probably meant it as a joke.

Text: Take a look at that question mark. And then the curt second sentence. Your roommate put those things there on purpose to be rude.

The list could go on and on. We employ a similar range of skills when we read anything, be it fiction, poetry, or historical documents. Close reading might be best described as an activity in which a reader simply lets no detail of the text go unquestioned. The best way at approaching a good close reading is by asking (and attempting to answer) questions about every piece of a text.

Take a sentence from the 1775 Anecdotes on the Countess du Barry, a libelle (which you can find here) similar to the ones discussed in Sarah Maza’s “The Diamond Necklace Affair Revisited: The Case of the Missing Queen.” Mme du Barry was a prostitute who was Louis XV’s mistress at the end of his reign (1715-1774). Here is how the Count du Barry tells one of Louis XV’s courtiers that he has a woman in mind for the king:

“I’ve got your business for you. You know I don’t lack taste. Trust me: you come to dinner at my house and tell me that I’m a cad if I don’t give you the most beautiful woman, the most fresh, the most seductive; a true morsel for a king.”

In beginning a close reading here, I might ask:

  • What adjectives and nouns describe Mme du Barry here?

  • More specifically, what does it mean that she is compared to a “business” or a “morsel”?

  • If she is a piece of food, what does that mean about the relationship she might have with Louis XV?

  • Why is she not named here?

  • If you read the rest of the text, you’ll see that most of the language in this excerpt is flowery – but not the Count du Barry’s words. What does that suggest about who he is and what his character is like?

You can answer these questions any number of ways, and this ambiguity is part of the point. Close reading as a method is a way of training yourself to look for details, the evidence that you will use to interpret a passage, but how you use them depends on you. This evidence becomes the material you use to produce an analysis of your own (sometimes also called a close reading). Using the questions about Anecdotes on the Countess du Barry, I might make the argument that these sentences establish her as an object, a commerical good or a commodity for the king’s consumption. I might also think that the Count du Barry’s words render him as vulgar and coarse, a figure unworthy of contact with the court of Versailles.

Primary and Secondary Texts for Historical Analysis

In addition to reading texts closely, you also want to think about the kind of text you are working with and its relationship to its historical context. For starters, you need to know if the work you are reading is a primary text or a secondary text. The Healey Library has a good set of definitions:

Primary Sources are immediate, first-hand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it. Secondary Sources are one step removed from primary sources, though they often quote or otherwise use primary sources. They can cover the same topic, but add a layer of interpretation and analysis.

Sarah Maza’s article is a secondary text, whereas the Anedcotes, discussed above, is a primary text.

Reading primary texts is absolutely invaluable, particularly in the study of history. There is no better way to understand events in the past than by examining the sources – whether journals, newspaper articles, letters, court case records, novels, artworks, music or autobiographies – that people from that period left behind. However, you need to approach primary sources with care and as something other than a 100% accurate representation of the truth. For instance, in reading the Anecdotes, you might ask: did the author actually witness the events he or she was describing? Probably not. In that is the case, what can this document help us understand? And what can’t we use it to do?

Thus, you want to read primary sources with a series of questions in mind. The following is adapted from a guide provided by Carleton College:

  1. What implicit and explicit messages does this text contain? What did the author choose NOT to talk about?

  2. What do you know about the author? How might his or her beliefs or background have affected the writing of and views in this document?

  3. Who constituted the intended audience? Was this source meant for one person’s eyes or for the public? How does that affect the nature of the source?

  4. Is it prescriptive (telling you what people thought should happen) or descriptive (telling you what people thought did happen)?

  5. Does it tell you about the beliefs\/actions of the elite, or of “ordinary” people? From whose perspective?

  6. What historical questions can you answer using this source? What questions can this source NOT help you answer? What are the limitations of this type of source? What historical perspectives are left out of this source?

  7. What assumptions do you see being made? What surprises you about this text?

For instance, take the following passage from the first paragraph of the Anecdotes:

Advancing age and the ability of a great prince to satisfy all his passions had dulled his attraction towards women. But this need, though diminished, continued … The doctors assured the King that it was dangerous to give up so abruptly a pleasure necessary for his existence.

At one level, this work is giving an account of how Louis XV and the Countess du Barry began their liaison. But these sentences also have an implicit message: the king’s sexual desire for women was natural and indeed necessary to his well-being. This view that the king needed to have a mistress for the sake of his health may be surprising to you and it certainly reveals a set of assumptions about extra-marital activity at the time. So if we can’t take this primary source as an accurate representation of the relationship between du Barry and the king, it does serve as a fascinating window into into the culture of late eighteenth-century France.

Digital Reading

Interrogating sources in this fashion is just one mode of understanding a text. It relies on the idea that sustained attention to a document will allow you to understand new things about it. This same approach can be applied to virtually any object of study, be they books, films, music, or ideas themselves. Our primary motivation in this book, then, is how the process can be changed with the introduction of technology. You might start by asking a series of questions about how close reading might interact with digital tools.

  • Can we still read closely if the computer is doing the reading for us?

  • How might the computer change the kinds of close readings available to us?

  • Can we close read new things using digital tools that we couldn’t before?