Close reading skills – time to practice

Close reading skills – time to practice

Close reading skills – I’ve joined a short on-line course from Sheffield University and Future Learn on the literature of the English country house. I’m sure the subject has been chosen with Downton House fans in mind. Simply, I thought it would keep me entertained on lovely, long, summer evenings.

The course started with a refresher on close reading and the lecturer chose a passage from Twelfth Night for us to work on. It’s a play I love and full of ambiguity. The action centres on the twins Viola and Sebastian, who are separated in a shipwreck. Viola (who is disguised as a boy) falls in love with Duke Orsino, who in turn is in love with the Countess Olivia. Upon meeting Viola, Countess Olivia falls in love with her thinking she is a man.

So, we practiced our close reading skills. First, we read the piece quickly for a general impression. Then, we read it a second time to confirm our first thoughts. This was followed by zooming in for key words and phrases that gave clues to the layers of meaning. It was an entertaining process, given Shakespeare’s propensity for hidden jokes and references.

I was left wondering about our obsession with speed reading. We prize how quickly we can scan the mass of text we encounter daily, be it in emails, discussion papers or reports. If we couldn’t scan quickly, we wouldn’t be able to cope at work or at home. But, we pay a price. I wonder, for example, how many corporate disasters might have been avoided, if we had the time to close read critical passages in progress reports on major programmes or to pick up the hints “between the lines” in management reports.

Have our senses and our judgment become numb from the volume of material put before us?

We need to be aware of the risk. There is a huge responsibility on authors and curators to flag up what they think are critical passages. But, at the end of the day, it is down to us and may be it is time to practice, practice, practice those close reading skills.

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