Anna Ovaska and Kaisa Kortekallio examine the ways close reading can be used as a method for approaching vulnerable bodies and environments.
This essay was first presented as part of “Narratives of Illness”, the SELMA Medical Humanities Seminar Series at the University of Turku, Finland, convened by Marta-Laura Cenedese and Avril Tynan
Described as the “signature method of narrative medicine” (Charon et al. 2017), close reading exemplifies the intersection of literary theory with clinical practice. Narratives of illness refer not only to the way illness is depicted in texts, but also to how illness comes to be known through material and immaterial interactions that reciprocally transform both the teller and the reader or listener. Close reading offers a valuable means of creating new ways of perceiving the self and its relationship to others and the world, particularly in settings which involve experiences of pain, vulnerability, and precarity. Here, we provide an overview of some key approaches to close reading that have far-reaching implications for understanding how narratives of illness form, inform and even deform how we experience ourselves, the world, and others.
Close reading is at the core of what practically all literary scholars do. Our “job” is to pay close attention to the narrative and poetic structures, patterns, and language of literary texts. We carefully examine the voice, perspective, and characters, the narrative situation, temporal and spatial structures, modes of description and narration, and the style of a literary work of art (see DuBois 2003; Felski 2008; Gallop 2009; Culler 2010; Federico 2015). This is how we gain understanding about the way literature constructs people and worlds as well as information about its key effects: how literature brings readers closer to experiences and environments that are foreign to us or shows familiar experiences and environments in a new light. As Charon has argued (2006; 2017), close reading can be used as an instrument that helps to detect silent experiences of pain and illness, the influence of social and material environments on health, damaging power relations, and structural inequalities in healthcare. For us, it offers a method of “reading” others and the world around us in a way that is ethically more sustainable: recognizing the complexity of experiential, social and environmental structures, acknowledging the gaps in our knowledge, admitting our tendency in the Western world to appropriate and colonize the world around us, and becoming more sensitive to hidden or invisible processes.
The practice of close reading is generally associated with the far-reaching influence of New Criticism, initiated in American literary departments in the 1940s. As a result of this background, it tends to be described as a method that aims to achieve maximally critical and objective interpretations of literature. However, it is also possible to trace a history of literary scholars and teachers who, while championing for the critical analysis of texts, also consistently emphasized the bodily, affective, political, self-critical, and transformative aspects of reading.
For example, I. A. Richards (1929) – who is often named as the scholar who coined the term “close reading” – noted that in addition to focusing closely on the texts, readers should reflect on the cultural environment in which they read. It is important to understand the “stock responses” of readers: the different cultural and social frames and preconceptions through which we respond to the texts we encounter.
Virginia Woolf, in turn, underscored the bodily and sensory experiences of reading and the way reading is situated in an environment. Already in “Reading” (ca. 1919) Woolf describes how the reader is simultaneously immersed in the world created by the fictional text and physically present in their actual environment: the book is a part of the readers’ physical reality, and two worlds – fictional and actual – become entangled. Later, in “How Should One Read a Book?” (1926) she described two modes of reading: first there is the embodied interaction with the text, then the reflection of what has been read and a deeper understanding of the reading experience.
A third important figure in conceptualizing close reading as an embodied, situated, and critical practice is Louise Rosenblatt. In the late 1930s, Rosenblatt developed a systematic account of reading and teaching literature. She emphasized that the reader draws from their past experiences and identity: “each reader is unique, bringing to the transaction an individual ethnic, social, and psychological history” (1995, xix). As a result of this transaction, “literary experiences” are formed: aesthetic experiences that are based simultaneously on the text, the reader, and the reading environment.
For Rosenblatt, the purpose of teaching literature is to develop the transaction between the reader and the text, and thus support the enhancement of literary experiences:
Teaching becomes a matter of improving the individual’s capacity to evoke meaning from the text by leading him to reflect self-critically on this process. […] The teacher’s task is to foster fruitful interactions – or, more precisely, transactions – between individual readers and individual literary texts. (25–26)
The aim is to move from the readers’ initial bodily reactions towards a more reflective understanding of one’s own experience of reading: Why do we read the way we do? What kind of cultural frames do we project on texts? It is, in other words, important to understand those social and cultural meanings through which we approach texts and the norms and habits that shape our reading.
According to Rosenblatt, this skill of forming an intellectual and emotional transaction with the text helps a person to make sense not only of their own experiences, but also of the surrounding world:
the peculiar power of the literary work of art resides in its influence on an emotional level, analogous to the kind of influence exerted by people and situations in life. Yet precisely because the literary experience is imaginary, it can be reflected on more judiciously. (181)
New forms of thinking and feeling emerge, and with them a new understanding about the world, the environment, and other people (101).
The brief historical survey shows how, for several decades, close reading has been understood as a form of close attention to bodily, social, cultural, and material structures. It is an embodied practice that is embedded in the world and that also has consequences for the ways we see the world and others. It can also be understood as a form of performative action: when we read, we participate in complex, sometimes even disturbing patterns, habits, norms, and conventions, and these in turn shape us (see also Warhol 2003; Armstrong 2011; Kortekallio 2020, 41–59). Close reading thus becomes a model for affective and reflective engagement with the world.
For us, as literary scholars interested both in readers’ affective responses to texts as well as in texts that portray vulnerable bodies and environments, we want to suggest that close reading and its entanglement in critical medical and health studies may also provide a pertinent point of departure for the study of human and non-human worlds and others: How can the sensibility towards aesthetic forms and structures that is cultivated in close reading be employed outside of literary studies? How can close attention to texts and aesthetic forms shape how we attune to bodies of others – both human and non-human – and to environments? (see also Kortekallio & Ovaska 2020; Kortekallio 2020; Ovaska 2020)
As in the critical medical humanities, the skills and sensitivities of close reading may be applied in the environmental humanities to understand the ecological interdependencies of humans and other species in order to grapple with the effects of changing environments at the micro-level of individual experiences as well as at the macro-level of power structures. Econarratologist Erin James (2015), for instance, argues that close reading can be a valuable method to propel forward environmental dialogue and policymaking. By advocating for expanding the use of close reading beyond its original scope and uses in certain academic disciplines (e.g. literary studies), we want to call attention to its productive application in other academic fields, such as the medical and environmental humanities, or practices (medicine, policy-making, environmental activism). This way the close attention to narrative and aesthetic structures is transformed into close attention to bodily experiences, entanglements of the human being and the world, the changes of environments and social structures, and the possibilities for action that are available to us.
For a practical example of “close reading”, see Anna Ovaska’s lecture at the SELMA Medical Humanities Seminar
Anna Ovaska is a postdoctoral scholar at Centre for Interdisciplinary Narrative Studies Narrare at Tampere University. Her current project “Reading Pain” (funded by Kone Foundation) explores readers’ interaction with narratives of pain and illness. She tweets at @annaovaska
Kaisa Kortekallio is a postdoctoral scholar in the JYU.Wisdom community at the University of Jyväskylä. She is currently designing online courses in multidisciplinary sustainability studies and working on the theory and methodology of “more-than-human reading.” She tweets at @kkortekallio
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