A book is like a hyper-convenient version of Pandora’s box – it can spawn a plethora of different things, but it’s up to us which one will come out. We can read for work or for school. We can read to form an opinion on a controversial book, or to examine the politics at play in a popular series. We can read just for the simple pleasure of words on a page.
Just as there are different purposes for reading, there are different levels of reading. Most frequently, we read a work in its entirety, and we read it on a surface level. A detail here or there might slip past us, but we grasp the overall point and meaning of the book. Even the most serious scholars will approach a book in this way at first.
However, you don’t have to come up with an opinion and move on once you’ve given a book a read-through like this. In fact, you shouldn’t move on if you really want to learn from it. Instead, you should pick an interesting passage or two and subject them to a good, old-fashioned close reading.
In a formal academic setting, a ‘close reading’ is a short essay (of 500 to 1,000 words at my alma mater) written on a sentence or two in a novel. I want to be a nice creative person and say “but you can choose your own method,” but no – at first, you’ll need that goal of 500 words to get you really thinking about the short (no more than 55 words!) passage you’ve chosen. Do it right, and you’ll think you’ve gone crazy: you’ll be going to seemingly absurd lengths to find some additional meaning hidden in a little grammar quirk. You’ll be looking up words in dictionaries, you’ll be thinking about section structures, and you might even be looking up the current academic discourse of the book.
This madness is exactly the point of close reading. It forces you to grasp at straws, to look for different interpretations, and to think of strategies a writer may have been using to make a point. That process will help you understand literature, it will help you develop your own strategies for making points, and it will help you develop a new level of understanding for the books you read.