Connotations and Close Reading 

last updated 9/10/07

A BIG part of analysis is what English types call close reading (a term from the older literary theory called New Criticism).  Closely reading a text means you are looking at the connotations, or implications (often unstated) of a word or phrase so you can make a deeper interpretation of that text (which is, of course, based on your identity/ideological laundry lists).  Close reading can make you more aware of so called "hidden" messages, and this makes you smarter (and more jaded)!  It is also a method of providing evidence for the interpretations you make about a text because in most college writing, evidence is the key to a good essay.

If I can't show how diction gives off a certain tone or spin, I will likely end up sounding very circular when someone asks me how I know something is sarcastic or liberal or bigoted etc.  For instance, when active reading an article by Ann Coulter, I could end up making this interpretation:

"Ann Coulter is bigoted because she is a racist"--very circular (begging the question), tells the reader almost nothing, but it also doesn't show any evidence.

"Ann Coulter is bigoted because she uses racist language in her article"--this is better because it focuses on possible evidence, language, but it still doesn't show the reader much.

Any time I need to ask, "How do you know?" I know I am not getting enough detailed evidence, and close reading can help with that.

Sometimes looking at context and PAGS can help you begin to find more evidence (look up the author, the genre of what you are reading in Google, think about if you are or are not part of the audience, etc.), but you are likely also going to need to closely read "Hot Spot" words that seem to have connotatively rich, or emotionally/culturally spun meanings (vs. denotative meanings--the basic definition of a word without as much cultural/emotional spin).  Hot Spots often have a lot of interesting baggage under the surface.  The more baggage, the more easily you can notice the tone or the attitude/spin/agenda  (angle-of-vision, credibility) of a certain author or piece of writing.

The first thing to do is to look interesting words up in a dictionary, in a thesaurus, or via or (just be aware that the article might suffer from "Wikiality").

"When Ann Coulter uses the phrase "proclivity toward violence" while talking about Muslims (whether they are rioting or not), I am stopped cold.  "Proclivity" is not very far from "predilection" which is not very far from "tendency" which is not very far from "predisposition" which in the "pre" implies something that came before, in other words, something potentially innate.  The minute you start assigning innate qualities to a group of people, you are very likely going to fall into the trap of stereotype, and isn't that the core of bigotry?  Yes, I am therefore calling Ann Coulter a bigot, though I would certainly never say she had a "proclivity" towards it because that might imply an inability to escape it."

At least now I'm not begging the question, and I give textual evidence to support my point in a way that will likely be harder to argue with (this is an essential tool when constructing a Toulmin argument).

Of course when you don't see a lot of connotatively rich language in a piece of writing, it might then come off sounding more neutral or transparent (though often there is no such thing as transparency--language without ideology is impossible based on post-structural theories of language--this is why I don't believe in "objectivity").  Transparent-ish writing still has a purpose or even an agenda (everything has an agenda according to Lee's ideologies), it's just harder to notice.  Close reading transparent pieces requires a lot more work with a thesaurus, with Google background searches (evaluation), etc.

Here's another example.  One of my favorite authors is Annie Dillard, a famous essayist and density queen.  I don't often notice her being sarcastic in her writing, but in one strange quote from her that I had never seen, I do sense almost flippant sarcasm:

I don't do housework.  Life is too short...I let almost all my indoor plants die from neglect while I was writing the book.  There are all kinds of ways to live.  You can take your choice.  You can keep a tidy house, and when St. Peter asks you what you did with your life, you can say, 'I kept a tidy house, I made my own cheese balls.' (The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing 558)

See the sarcasm?  It's obvious!  The end.

But actually it isn't necessarily obvious at all.  I need to do some close reading to help "prove" my interpretation (and also to likely find more and deeper meaning in the text).   I can start by focusing on what seems to be the most spun part of this quote, the "cheese balls" comment.  What are the connotations of cheese balls?  It all depends on where you're coming from, but for me cheese balls are cheesy in the worst of ways.  Tacky.  A cheap, middle class way to entertain at a party.  Still, Martha Stewart has to come to mind, of course.  Her cheese balls would likely be decadent and tasty as opposed to the kinds you pick up at the 7-11 on your way to a party (the kind of cheese ball that will sit there looking sad while all the other food is eaten, which tells you something about cheese balls and their rhetorical impact).  But even Martha's fabulous cheese balls would still be cheese balls, something that truly doesn't mean much in the scheme of things (when people are starving, when dictators are making war threats and nuclear threats, who would care that you could make your own cheese balls?).  Perhaps the tone becomes even more sarcastic when Dillard fictionalizes telling "St. Peter" that one's accomplishments add up to making your own, aka all you did was mere housework in your life, but likely "He" wouldn't care much about that (or perhaps I missed the part in Genesis about cheese balls).  Dillard's use of "St. Peter" also has a reference to those old-fogie jokes that our fathers tell that make us moan in disgust (kind of like some of the rather banal Mohammed jokes).  Thus Dillard is certainly invoking the language of jokes in this quote which I think adds to her sarcasm.

I might then think about PAGS as well as the larger implications of her piece.  Who would bristle at her comment, or argue with it?  Who would laugh?  Dillard, of course, might offend a 50's housewife, but that is some of what I think she is purposely doing--critiquing those who might have critiqued her for not being more of a homemaker.  "There are all kinds of ways to live," she says, but based on this quote she thinks her kind of living is better, is more the kind of life a god-like entity would actually give kudos to, dead plants and all.

Wow, look how much I can say about something so small!  The point is, however, not merely to say a lot but to make interesting evaluations and interpretations about something in order to prove a point to your audience. Obviously reading at this level of detail isn't something I would do for all audiences or purposes.  I wouldn't do this in a letter to the editor unless I was carefully arguing about the problematic language in an Op-Ed article I didn't agree with.  I wouldn't do close reading of my brother's bigoted opinions unless I wanted to upset him or make him feel stupid.  I do close reading of student language because I want them to be aware that some audiences really pay attention, and that sloppy language (language you just spurt out without thinking of connotations and audience) can undermine credibility.