Excerpts from the Article “The Ethics of Reading: Close Encounters”
Jane Gallop, The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Published in the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, Fall 2000
Introduction and Definition of Close Reading
I usually tell my students that “close reading” means looking at what is actually on the page, reading the
text itself, rather than some idea “behind the text.” It means noticing things in the writing, things in the
writing that stand out. To give you some idea of what this means, I’ve made up a list of five sorts of
things that a close reading might typically notice: (1) unusual vocabulary, words that surprise either
because they are unfamiliar or because they seem to belong to a different context; (2) words that seem
unnecessarily repeated, as if the word keeps insisting on being written; (3) images or metaphors,
especially ones that are used repeatedly and are somewhat surprising given the context; (4) what is in
italics or parentheses; and (5) footnotes that seem too long. This list is far from complete—in fact, no
complete list is possible—but the list is meant to begin to give you an idea of what sorts of things we
notice when we’re doing close reading.
What all five of my examples have in common is that they are minor elements they are not main ideas.
In fact, your usual practice of reading which focuses on main ideas would dismiss them all as marginal or
trivial. Another thing they have in common is that, although they are minor, they are nonetheless
conspicuous, eye-catching: they are either surprising or repeated, set off from the text or too long. Close
reading pays attention to elements in the text which, although marginal, are nonetheless emphatic,
prominent—elements in the text which ought to be quietly subordinate to the main idea, but which
textually call attention to themselves.
Most of you have been educated to ignore such elements. You have been taught to seek out and
identify the main ideas, dismissing the trivial as you go. This has had to be trained into you: read to a
young child sometime, you will notice she has the annoying habit of interrupting the flow of the story to
draw attention to some minor thing. Close reading resembles the interruptions of that child. It is a
method of undoing the training that keeps us to the straight and narrow path of main ideas. It is a way
of learning not to disregard those features of the text that attract our attention, but are not principal
ideas. . . .
In explaining what I mean by close reading, I often tell my students to read NOT what SHOULD BE on the
page but what IS. Over the years since first learning to read, we acquire the habit of reading what we
think OUGHT TO be there rather than what actually is. You can test this by seeing how few people notice
small typographical errors, how difficult in fact it is for people to catch all the typos in a text. (Even a text
proofread by several people will generally still have a couple of errors.) The problem is that people
automatically correct what they’re seeing without being conscious of it. So to ask people to read what is
actually on the page, is to ask people to alter this pattern of automatic correction, to learn to become
conscious of what they usually remain unconscious of, what is actually on the page.
This pattern of reading what ought to be there rather than what is can most easily be seen in relation to
typos. While close reading is not primarily about noticing typographical errors, that is a useful side
effect. Students trained in close reading generally become very good at catching typos. Even in this day
of spell-check programs, this is still helpful, since the best spell-checker cannot catch typos that turn
words into different words.
One Benefit of Close Reading
A . . . substantial benefit of close reading is the effect it can have upon the student’s reading of her own
writing. When we read our own writing, we are even more than usually prey to reading what ought to
be there rather than what is. Often we don’t notice that we’ve actually left words out or used words
that don’t mean what we mean or not explained something in a way anyone could follow. And that’s
because we know what ought to be there: we know what we were trying to say, and we read, not what
we actually managed to get down on paper, but what we were trying to say.
More often than not, when I’m talking with a student about his paper, I find we’re talking about two
different objects. He is talking about the paper he thinks he wrote, which is the one he intended to
write; I am talking about the paper he actually wrote. As a result, if I don’t think the paper is very good,
he thinks it means that I don’t think his ideas are good, whereas in fact I am critical because I can’t tell
very well what his ideas are. When he reads his paper, he sees his ideas; when I read his paper, I see his
words, which unfortunately don’t manage to convey his ideas.
A student trained to close read would be more likely to read what she actually wrote. And thus she
would be more able to see how it differs from what she intended to write. Practically, that means she
would be better equipped to revise her writing, to make it correspond more closely to her intention.
That close reading can help students write better is another reason it belongs in an English class. Besides
teaching students to read better, the other central task of English is teaching students to write better.
Helping students write better is a substantial benefit and argues strongly for the value of close reading.
But it is not actually the argument I want to make here. I have bigger fish to fry.
Another (More Important) Benefit of Close Reading: Avoiding Projection
Close reading can make students write better, but as much as I value good writing, that is simply not
If we only read things written by ourselves, close reading wouldn’t be very important. It is when we read
things written by others that we begin to grasp the real value of close reading.
In concentrating on how close reading is useful in getting us to see the faults in our own writing, we
focus on the difference between what we actually write and what we intend to write. And as good as it
is to learn to hear what we actually say, as opposed to what we thought we said, in such a situation we
generally have the advantage of knowing our intentions, even when we’re not very adept at expressing
When we read our own writing, we tend to see, not what we actually wrote, but what we intended to
write—that is, we read not the words on the page, but our thoughts. Likewise, I’m sorry to say, when we
read what someone else wrote, we tend to see, not what he actually wrote, but what we think he would
have written. Once again rather than seeing what is there in front of us, we see our thoughts.
Whereas in reading our own writing, we merely fail to see our own inadequate expression, in reading
the writing of others, our failure is much more serious: we read our own ideas in place of what the other
person has written. There’s a technical term for this: it’s called projection. Rather than read what the
other person has actually written, we project onto the page what we think he would have written.
It’s amazing how much reading is really projection. In fact, I would say that most of the time most
people read not what is in front of them but what they expect to find in front of them.
More About Projection and a Definition of Genre
Often the difference doesn’t matter that much. Often what is in front of us is pretty similar to what we
expect to find. A letter from Mom is generally similar to previous letters from Mom; this week’s People
magazine is very much like last week’s; a novel by Jane Austen is very much like other Austen novels;
one Harlequin romance is pretty much like another; a comedy by Shakespeare has the same structure as
other comedies; one neo-conservative attack on “political correctness” resembles another; a feminist
critique of pornography is likely to say what we expect it to say.
Those things which conform to our expectations are things which resemble what we have read before,
things where we have learned what to expect. English teachers call this similarity “genre.” Writings in
the same genre will follow the same pattern; experienced readers of the genre will learn the pattern and
know by and large what is coming. This is, of course, too simplistic. While the new Harlequin romance
will mainly conform to the genre, it probably will have a few surprising details.
Rare is the text that does not, to some extent, belong to a genre; even texts which seem shockingly
original often participate unwittingly in familiar patterns. Equally rare is the text which completely
follows the rules of a genre: even the most conventional will usually display some individual expressivity,
some originality in its details. A text generally engages the expectations of genre and also varies from or
even breaks those expectations, combining the surprising and the familiar.
When the reader concentrates on the familiar, she is reassured that what she already knows is sufficient
in relation to this new book. Focusing on the surprising, on the other hand, would mean giving up the
comfort of the familiar, of the already known for the sake of learning, of encountering something new,
something she didn’t already know.
Close Reading and Its Connection to Learning
In fact, this all has to do with learning. Learning is very difficult; it takes a lot of effort. It is of course
much easier if once we learn something, we can apply what we have learned again and again. It is much
more difficult if every time we confront something new, we have to learn something new.
Reading what one expects to find means finding what one already knows. Learning, on the other hand,
means coming to know something one did not know before. Projecting is the opposite of learning. As
long as we project onto a text, we cannot learn from it, we can only find what we already know.
Close reading is thus a technique to make us learn, to make us see what we don’t already know, rather
than transforming the new into the old. Close reading can thus be a crucial part of our education, the
very sort of thing we most need from college. Close reading can equip us to learn, to be open to
learning, to keep on learning all our life. Given the pace of change, there is no way you can learn
everything you will need in life during your formal years of schooling. Thus the most valuable thing you
could take from your education is the ability to learn. Close reading is a technique to maximize learning,
one with wide application.
The difference between close reading and the way most people read most of the time is that, whereas it
is generally agreed that it is the big picture that matters, close reading emphasizes small details. We
have been trained to read a book globally: that is, to think of the book as a whole, identify its main idea,
and understand all of its parts as fitting together to make up that whole. Close reading, on the other
hand, is a technique for letting the whole book, the main argument, the global picture fade into the
background. When we close read, we zero in on details but we do not immediately fit those details into
our idea of the whole book. Instead we try to understand the details themselves as much as possible, to
derive as much meaning as we can from them.
The reason for this is that the detail is the best possible safeguard against projection. It is the main idea
or the general shape which is most likely to correspond to our preconceptions about the book. But we
cannot so easily predict the details. So by concentrating on the details, we disrupt our projection; we are
forced to see what is really there. When the reader learns to stop at the details, to notice them, and
think about them, then the reader must account for what is actually written and cannot fall back on his
expectations for what is in a book. I ask my students to notice surprising or insistent details because it is
there that the student is most likely to find the text as it exists, most likely to break free of his
preconceptions of what should be in the text.
Close Reading is Ethical
[Close Reading] will help the student learn better, all through her life; it will make her sharper and more
adaptable, prepare her better for the surprises thrown in her path. This is a major benefit, but it is still a
selfish gain. There is another, less selfish reason to practice close reading: I believe it makes for more
ethical reading. What do I mean by ethical? I believe it is ethical to respect other people, by which I
mean: listen to them, try and understand what they are actually saying, rather than just confirming our
preconceptions about them, our prejudices. I believe it is our ethical obligation to fight against our
tendency to project our preconceptions, that it is our ethical duty to attempt to hear what someone else
is really saying. Ultimately, close reading is not just a way of reading but a way of listening. It can help us
not just to read what is on the page, but to hear what a person really said. Close reading can train us to
hear other people. In fact, I would argue that that is the most important benefit of close reading.
Our usual habits of reading are, to some extent, based on how we normally listen to spoken language.
Because spoken language exists in time, not space, we catch what we can, forming impressions as we go
along. We don’t usually have the opportunity to go back and hear it again, to compare what we thought
we heard with what was really said. And most often that is exactly how we read. We read along as fast
as we are able, catching what we can, forming impressions. Not actually taking advantage of the fact
that written language exists in space.
Close reading slows us down, stopping us at words, getting us to look around at the context of the words
that stopped us, making us remember similar words and go back and look for them. Close reading takes
advantage of the material permanence of the text to look at what is on the page, rather than to rely on
our impressions. Close reading takes the fullest advantage of the difference between writing and
speech, between reading and listening. We do not have to rely on our faulty memory, our necessarily
subjective impressions. We can go back and look at the page; we can pause over things that surprise or
puzzle us. We might even say that close reading is reading, if we define reading as how we greet writing
in contradistinction to how we encounter speech.
Close Reading Leads to Close Listening
And yet—even while close reading means learning to take advantage of the physical permanence of
writing to do what we cannot with speech—a practiced close reader will begin to listen to speech in a
way influenced by close reading. Whereas most of the time most people read writing as if they were
listening to speech, training in close reading can reverse that—we can learn to listen to speech with an
attentiveness resembling what close reading pays to the text.
It will of course always be more difficult to “close listen” than to close read. In most circumstances we
cannot easily stop at a surprising phrase, question and analyze it. In most speech situations we can’t
take the time to ponder an unexpected word. But close reading, by teaching us to see the difference
between what we expect and what is actually written, can make us aware of that difference, suspicious
of our tendency to project, can teach us to listen better, to catch the actual words, to remark—as best
we can even in passing—the specificity of what is said. Close reading can prepare us for this difficult task
by giving us the habit of noticing unexpected words and allowing them to shake up our preconceived
notions. Close reading schools us for the truly hard and really valuable task of learning to hear what the
other is saying, not what we expect him to say, not a general impression of what he is saying, but—as
much as possible—what he is actually, literally saying. . . .
Conclusion/Summary of Ideas
By “reading” here, I mean of course close reading, learning to hear what’s really on the page, listening
closely to the other, and being willing to catch what the other actually says, and able to hear what we
didn’t expect him to say. If we can learn to do that with books, we might learn to do that with people.
Reading, by which I now mean close reading, can school us for all our close encounters. And then
maybe, just maybe, we could learn not only to read better but to fight and love more fairly. To hear a
little better what our enemy or our beloved might actually be saying. To resist demonizing and idolizing,
but instead to fight and love other humans. That would be not just an ethics for reading, a way to read
more ethically, but a reading for ethics, close reading as a means to a more just treatment of others.
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