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The World of Close Reading

Cambridge, King’s College Library (1865). A. D. White Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library.

When a convener adds Things Fall Apart (1959) to their syllabus something strange happens. If all goes well the class will read Chinua Achebe’s novel together, discussions will grow around the colonial history of Nigeria, and textual details will emerge from their conversation. Two systems will touch: context and close reading will intersect. The imperial damages and fugitive traditions of world history will come into contact with the New Critical leftovers of contemporary criticism. What’s strange is that these systems, with their seemingly alien politics, histories, and procedures, fold together so smoothly that we hardly notice.

In Achebe and Friends at Umuahia (2015) Terry Ochiagha shows us the crease between world literature and disciplinary history. Ochiagha begins her institutional study with Achebe’s own description of an odd connection between colonial education and post-colonial literature. Speaking at Clare Hall, Cambridge in 1993, Achebe observed that a number of men who “played a conspicuous role in the development of modern African Literature”—Elechi Amadi, Chukwuemeka Ike, Christopher Okigbo, Chike Momah and himself—were all alumni of Government College, Umuahia.[1]

Ochiagha documents the educational environment at the school in generous detail, and one of the figures she brings to life is Charles Low. An Australian graduate of Clare College with a BA in Classics, Low was unusual in that he taught courses in creative writing and encouraged literary creativity among his students. In Okigbo’s final year, Low presented the writer with a leaving present: a copy of The Sacred Wood (1921) by T. S. Eliot.[2] Later, at University College, Ibadan, some of these Nigerian writers would again find themselves in an educational system where literary studies played into and out of other processes of colonization. Umuahia taught its students a set of methods that enforced a certain image of what English literature should be and yet enabled a dissenting expression of what literature in English could be. At Umuahia, Ochiagha shows us a multipart movement between the history of literary studies and the history of world literature. By looking for points of contact like this more often, and following them further, we can begin to find out how the social organization that secondary and higher education imposes might elucidate and alter our existing theories of world literature. One of the places that we can begin to look for these points of contact is in the history of close reading.

Back to Basic

Can you imagine world literature without distant reading? Allegations of sexual assault against Franco Moretti have given a broader urgency to recent efforts to think about quantitative modes of literary analysis in contexts that reach beyond the Stanford Literary Lab. Katherine Bode’s article outlining an equivalence between close and distant reading has drawn criticism for offering too narrow a version of digital humanities. Meanwhile, Ted Underwood has traced our expanding critical frameworks back to Raymond Williams’s approach to cultural history in the 1960s and to Janice Radway’s pioneering feminist work with literary history and the social sciences in the 1980s. By any measure, though, it was the turn of the century that saw distant reading catch fire in literary studies. World literature seemed to offer new scales for literary criticism: Pascale Casanova brought the underlying economies of the world of letters to the surface of literary inquiry while Moretti conjectured towards more distant critical modes. A growing body of research followed, operating across an open analytic range.

These variegated styles of analysis overlap increasingly with a critical approach that has grown weary and wary of critique. More and more scholars are reaching towards critical approaches that seek to describe rather than explain the world. Alongside this work an emerging corpus of publications by Joseph North, Robyn Wiegman, Alexandra Lawrie, Michael Gavin, Laura Heffernan and Rachel Buurma, Evan Kindley, Helen Thaventhiran, and Joshua Gang, among others, offers an increasingly salient supplement to our understanding of literary scholarship and an opportunity to think seriously about how the style and procedures of close reading colour our critical imaginations. Taking close reading seriously might mean we can start to find new ways of tracing the history and politics of literary criticism at work within, between, and beyond the old methodological practices, administrative bureaucracies, archival systems, and academic curricula of the modern research institution.

Contrary to what you may have heard, I. A. Richards did not invent close reading. It’s more accurate to say that his work stands at the beginning of an uncontroversial but under-interrogated timeline. According to John Guillory, the broad consensus is that at Cambridge in the 1920s, I. A. Richards “inaugurated a practice of reading that, if not precisely the same as what later came to be known as close reading, laid the foundation for it.” Although Guillory chooses his words carefully, this account of close reading aligns roughly with the story of close reading that Terry Eagleton put down in Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). Over the past thirty years, Eagleton’s broad brushstrokes have offered a rough outline for modern literary criticism reinforced by the more granular histories of Christopher Baldick, Gerald Graff, William E. Cain, and Vincent B. Leitch. The British, American, and continental history of close reading that these studies elaborate is essential to a basic understanding of our discipline, but we can start to develop a fuller picture of literary studies by incorporating accounts that run through other centuries and other continents. Here, that means reading Joseph North’s recent account of literary criticism alongside the genealogy of world literature that Aamir Mufti describes in Forget English! (2016), the social significance that Gayatri Spivak and Ato Quayson see in close reading, and the colonial beginnings of English Studies that Gauri Viswanathan uproots in her classic 1989 work Masks of Conquest.

What distinguishes North’s provocative and persuasive history of Anglo-American criticism from those I cite above is his willingness to make room for the economic and academic structures that govern our working lives. North argues that since the 1980s the vast majority of academic work has been characterized by an assumption that “works of literature are chiefly of interest as diagnostic instruments for determining the state of the cultures in which they were written or read” (1). North defines America’s present academic moment as the long neoliberal triumph of historicist scholarship over the more heterogeneous critical culture of the mid-century English department that rose to prominence in line with post-war economic policy. Working against what he characterizes as the historicist consensus of the discipline, North holds up the formative critical work of Richards as an example of how critical writing might be read as a guide for “a programmatic commitment to using works of literature . . . with the goal of more general cultural and political change” (3). North argues that “an incipiently materialist account of the aesthetic that lies at the root of the discipline, and continues to mark its central practice of ‘close reading’ is properly understood as part of a longer history of resistance to the economic, political, and cultural systems that prevent us from cultivating deeper modes of life” (x).

In tracking close reading through criticism into historicism and back again, North demonstrates how similar methods can produce different effects: in certain critical operations, close reading can offer a mode of political resistance; in its wider historicist application, close reading exacts an institutional uniformity. I’d like to suggest that a book like Viswanathan’s Masks of Conquest can help us to understand this second effect more fully and to recognize close reading’s capacity for social standardization. While North proposes that literary criticism might offer academics a means of political resistance, Viswanathan’s account of English Studies in Victorian India won’t let us forget how the programmatic study of literature can serve to enforce the economic, political, and cultural systems of state rule.

Here’s the strange thing: North and Viswanathan are both right. And if we can allow both of them to be right, we can start to think through a fuller history of close reading. In this more open account, close reading can work across two axes, permitting the collective resistance that North envisages and producing the cultural coercion that Viswanathan describes. In order to understand how close reading works, we need to chart how these lines of inquiry might rise, fall, and cross and that means returning, with an air of inevitability, to I. A. Richards, but not to Practical Criticism.

Richards’s experiments with practical criticism came into the world alongside another educational programme: Basic English. Initially developed by C. K. Ogden, Basic is an international auxiliary language that works around a restricted vocabulary. Ogden and Richards worked together on Basic in the hope that their system would make English an easily teachable, even universal language. Working at Cambridge from the 1920s onwards, the two began to take the idea of an English-speaking world seriously. In the 1940s, as Richards ventured into the world of mass media at Harvard, Basic began to attract the attention of the press. An article in The New York Times went so far as to suggest that the language might offer a route to world peace: “to get along without international misunderstandings and war, the peoples, it is declared, must have a better means of exchanging thought. Human progress, even human survival, may depend on it.” The report continues in similar, heavy-handed, fashion, going on to note that “today there are said to be secret classes in Basic in every land beneath the Nazi heel.” And the clincher: even “Marshall Stalin himself studies Basic.”[3]

Basic’s potential for wartime propaganda was clear, but a 1945 article in Time illustrates how the program let academics and journalists dream of an English-speaking world. The piece, titled “Globalingo” begins,

The Navy's orders were to teach them seamanship in a hurry. But only about 100 of the 1,000 Chinese could speak English, and some 300 of the rest could not even write their native Chinese. Within 18 weeks last summer at the U.S. Naval Training Center at Miami, the Chinese had passed a battery of formidable examinations in gunnery and naval techniques, [and] were equipped to shout, or to heed, such salty orders as “right standard rudder,” or “steady as you go!” The man who did the trick is a mild, little, wild-haired British professor, I. A. Richards, the Western Hemisphere's No. 1 apostle of Basic English. Says he: “It takes only 400 words of Basic to run a battleship. With 850 words you can run the planet.”

Richards’s urgent intent to make English a universal language appears to have been infectious, at least when it came to the journalists he encountered. What’s worth remembering is that this expansive zeal came off the back of his successful attempts to change how Cambridge taught English. In other words, the institutional beginnings of close reading and the dream of a global anglophone literature share more history than we might assume.

Small Worlds

Can you imagine world literature without close reading? In Death of a Discipline Gayatri Spivak tells a story, “fascinating in its exemplarity,” about a Midwestern woman she met on the international women’s aid circuit. The woman Spivak describes “had learned not only Bengali but the regional dialect,” but she was still “thinking of bilingual education on the metropolitan U.S. multiculturalist model, and planning for someone from the United States to come down to teach the teachers how to think freely.” This, in Spivak’s eyes, exemplifies “a globalized high-tech dominant feminism without frontiers,” a version of globalization “that does not know how to learn from below.” What she says next shows the ease with which methodological, disciplinary, political and world history interleave through close reading: “I cannot help but think that to deny the privilege of close reading to the texts of the global South is to give in to comparable impulses within the discipline.”[4]

It isn’t always easy to tell where close reading stops describing a critical technique and starts describing the discipline itself. What distinguishes Spivak’s account is that instead of leaving the practice behind like Casanova and Moretti, she advocates for its democratizing and preservative potential. In Calibrations, Ato Quayson takes a similar line. “This book,” he writes, “is about close reading. It is about a practice of close reading that oscillates rapidly between domains—the literary-aesthetic, the social, the cultural, and the political—in order to explore the mutually illuminating heterogeneity of these domains when taken together.­”[5] The cultural ductility that Quayson models for close reading is not confined to the pages of his book. Taken together, Spivak and Quayson show that a more accurate account of critical history is a more inclusive account, and that we can start to build it by giving more detailed and ambitious descriptions of this traditional method. Their turn-of-the-century publications beg the question, what would a more comparative history of close reading look like? Could it operate beyond the Anglo-American twentieth century? Could it work across the colonial history of English studies, the expanded archives of world literature, even the origins of the modern research institution? Could it account for close reading as both a method and a disciplinary category? And what kind of questions might it allow us to ask about world literature?

In Forget English! Mufti asserts that “a genealogy of World Literature leads to Orientalism.”[6] The genealogy that Mufti sets out leads back to Goethe’s definition of Weltliteratur. Mufti introduces his argument by focusing productively on the fabular connection between World Literature and the thought of “a universal library containing universal literature” (2). Mufti’s work suggests that there might be something to learn from the links between world literature and the university itself. Taking a leaf from William Clark, we might read Goethe, and his concept of Weltliteratur, as an identifiable product of university culture in Germany. Clark argues that in the nineteenth century the German institutional model for the research university became “the vehicle for spreading European science and academics globally . . . the final and most insidious phase of European colonialism.”[7] By going back to Goethe, Forget English!, begins with the beginning of the colonial university: an institution that, etymologically at least, attempts to bring everything into one place. If Weltliteratur is, in part, a product of the university, to what extent does world literature adhere to and reproduce the cultural logic of the colonial university? To what extent is world literature, like close reading, the academic expression of an acquisitive imperialism?

For Viswanathan, English studies in nineteenth-century India represents “the progressive refinement of the rapacious, exploitative, and ruthless actor of history into the reflective subject of literature.”[8] In Viswanathan’s account, literary study emerges as an uncannily effective means of imperial soft power. According to Masks of Conquest, not only did colonial pedagogy inaugurate the academic discipline of English, it created colonial subjects: “a sharpened critical sense . . . was held to be an absolutely essential prerequisite to the restoration of the individual to his original condition of moral virtue and, by extension, of a well-ordered political society” (13). In Practical Criticism, I. A. Richards revises the colonial ideology of literary studies that Viswanathan identifies for the twentieth-century student. His work offered a blueprint for teaching literary criticism and studying English at the university. His adjustment of existing philological methods meant that the careful analysis of literary texts was tied less tightly to a historiographical epistemology. Instead, literary interpretation would generate a kind of humanistic knowledge that served to cultivate judgment and moral clarity, sharpening the critical faculties of students at Cambridge. English departments previously in the business of creating historical knowledge would branch out into the business of creating a certain kind of subject. The following institutionalization of what we now call close reading had one clear consequence: for a body of work to be studied at the Anglo-American university, it would have to meet the requirements of literary analysis.

A clear description of this process at work can be found in a short but telling essay by Henry Louis Gates Jr. “Criticism in de Jungle” introduces a 1981 series of special issues on “Black Textual Strategies” in Black American Literature Forum. In it, Gates declares that “close reading of any intellectual complexion is that which I advocate; there can be no compromise here.”[9] He continues: “the black literary and critical traditions need all sorts of close readings; the body of practical criticism which enabled new theories of reading to emerge in the Western tradition has yet to be created in the black traditions. The tradition needs readings of several kinds before it can ‘move’ into the mainstream of critical debate in the profession” (125). What Gates is describing is the process of reading black writing into academic existence. It’s a stark reminder of the cultural restrictions that close reading enforces and the critical expression that close reading allows. This institutional double movement might be what sustains the method. Reading Gates’s essay I’m reminded of Achebe at Umuahia. Would the Anglo-American academy have been able to recognize Things Fall Apart if it couldn’t read some evidence of colonial critical practice in its pages? Would we still be teaching Achebe’s novel if we couldn’t? For better and for worse the world of world literature is not only linguistic, geographic, political, historical, and sociological—it’s academic. It’s this world. The world of articles, conferences, seminars, digital posts, and close reading. A world that exacts institutional obedience with the promise of resistance.


[1] Chinua Achebe, “The Education of a British-Protected Child,” Cambridge Review 114 (1993): 51-57, 57. Quoted in Terri Ochiagha, Achebe and Friends at Umuahia: The Making of a Literary Elite (Oxford: James Currey, 2015), 3.

[2] Obi Nwakanma, Christopher Okigbo, 1931-67: Thirsting For Sunlight (Oxford: James Currey, 2010), 57.

[3] “850 Words to Unite the World,” New York Times, September 19, 1943, 12.

[4] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 49-50.

[5] Ato Quayson, Calibrations: Reading for the Social (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), xi.

[6] Aamir R. Mufti, Forget English!: Orientalisms and World Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 13.

[7] William Clark, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 29.

[8] Gauri Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 127.

[9] Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Introduction: Criticism in de Jungle,” Black American Literature Forum 15, no. 4 (1981): 123-127, 127.