On Close- Reading

Someone accused me somewhere of not doing enough close-reading, but

close-reading is not my inclination as you may have guessed. I prefer to “read, and run”. If I enjoy a novel, then so be it; – I’m not that

interested in looking any further into the question. The more I think through the matter, the more I feel a distinction should be made between reading

and studying novels. Reading I see as a fairly irrational process, in which one sinks oneself into a text, one indulges oneself in the enjoyment of

the thing (or, perhaps, one doesn’t); – whereas studying is, amongst other things, an attempt to rationalise one’s enjoyment, or to understand the

process of it. Even the intention of writing a brief review of a book in some kind of blog, I am inclined to belief leads to an attempt to study a

work rather than read it, since suddenly one reads with the intention of justifying the feelings one is having whilst reading, and this changes the

act of the reading; – in my opinion, dilutes the enjoyment.

Another example (which may be banal in its way, but which I would contend applies

to any information derived about a text from thoughts other than your own – particularly opinions expressed about a text by others claiming to

interpret it) was, in reading The Curious Incident of the Dog… (or at least, the part I did read), I couldn’t get out of my head the

observation on the cover that it was “like The Catcher in the Rye, crossed with The Sound and The Fury” (or was it just, Salinger

meets Faulkner). In a sense, maybe, but the notion – which amused my foolish brain – entirely took over my reading of the book.

This blog

started, a long time back, as a series of book reviews, but even back then I felt the way I’d read books previously was becoming distorted by the

need to say some about the books and to justify myself; when I enjoyed a book, I searched now to find what it was in it I enjoyed – at the very least,

to find some sort of angle I could discuss. So I read my Le Clezio now, and I read it differently, feeling I have to evaluate it. Yet I don’t want

to, I just want to read the books and enjoy them as before. – Then why do I bother? Because equally it frustrates me that when I find great joy in

reading such and such a work, I want to express this to other people and yet (as I’ve always found) in truth I cannot – I cannot explain to anybody

why it means so much to me.

Which is why my book reviews have tended, of late, to have become more generalised affairs.

Anyway, to

return to reading of the close variety: I was reading a book called Shtetl, by Eva Hoffman, last night – getting some background on the

Jewish Pale of Settlement for my Yiddish literary project – and came across the following paragraph:

In the yeshivas, the young

scholars sat in pairs, concentrating on a discrete passage of the Talmud each day and questioning one another about its meaning and message – or, its

meanings and messages. The method of exegesis they employed, developed in Poland and disseminated throughout the Ashkenazic world, was evocatively

called pilpul, or pepper. It involved a painstaking search for contradictions and paradoxes between the Bible and the commentaries, for

multiple significances of words, and for hidden puns. In other words, the students were looking for those grains of pepper that disturbed the harmony

of the text and that might therefore be a clue, an opening, to further truths. When this methodology was carried to excess, it was called

hilluk, which means something like hair-splitting.

And of course, reading that, I didn’t need to read the following

paragraph to draw its conclusion:

It is no wonder, perhaps, that later so many Jewish students turned to the study of law, which

depends on a similar kind of argumentation, or that scholars who emerged from the Talmudic tradition went on to become masters of modern literary

textual exegesis.

I found myself wondering whether it could be proven that one (not necessarily Talmudic exegesis though) could be

derived from the other. But then in Talmudic, Koranic or Biblical exegesis at least there is a clear moral and religious intent behind the practice,

whereas the modern exegesis of texts seems  just an empty simulacrum of this process, an exercise of no worth even to the self.


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