How to be a close reader

I know we live in a McDonaldized world where efficiency and calculability are key, but there still remains some things best done slowly–like reading. 

We not only read for entertainment and escape, but to educate ourselves about specific topics and to gain an overall higher level of consciousness. 

It is quite difficult for one to achieve such a heighten conscience if one speeds through texts. Close reading, defined as “reading to uncover layers of meaning that lead to deep comprehension,” is the agent imperative to getting the absolute most out a text. Reading is so much more than simply glancing at the words on the page; it is a mixture of interpreting and visualizing the written word to ultimately arrive at your own ideas and criticisms.  

If you are completely McDonaldized to the point where you can’t even conceptualize how to do such a thing, here are four ways to become a close-reader:


Annotation is an art-form, but unlike most other art-forms it isn’t something you have to be born with. 

The Oxford Dictionary defines annotation as:

a note of explanation or comment added to a text or diagram

It is simply the act of underlining, circling, and writing in the margins of the text. Now, this doesn’t mean take your pen to town all over the book. Annotating requires your critical mind–highlight a beautiful prose, underline a symbol/theme/phrase that continues throughout the book, jot down a particular thought or connection to something you just read.

Here is an example of light annotation I’ve done in my Jane Eyre novel that I’ve read about twenty-thousand times:

Stephanie Fields's Jane Eyre annotated novel

Here’s an example of a lightly annotated page of my copy of Zadie Smith’s, White Teeth, where I used post-it notes to mark an impressive theme in that passage:

Stephanie Fields's annotated copy of Zadie Smith White Teeth

Here’s an example of two heavily annotated pages of my same copy of Jane Eyre:

Stephanie Fields's annotated copy of Jane Eyre

Your book doesn’t have to be so marked that you can’t even read the original text–you are looking for what jumps out at you as important.


In the McDonaldized way of living we want things one-and-done. No one has time to re-do, re-view, re-vise. Unfortunately, you’ll never truly grasp the beauty or complexity of any written work if you don’t re-read.

If you don’t believe me, Valdimir Nabokove once said:

one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.

It is impossible to catch everything the first time you read a text or a sentence. Initially you are trying to grasp the plot of the story–what’s happening and to whom. It isn’t until you re-read that you can begin to answer the question of why and how things take place. I often will get so caught up in the beauty of the syntax of language that I’ll reach the period and have no idea what I just read, as laborious as it may be I trek my eyes and my brain right back to the beginning of the sentence and read again for clarity.

When you’re re-reading you are looking to answer critical questions that arose after the first or second time of reading, during this process you are bound to catch something you missed before, which is what makes reading that much more active and entertaining of a sport.

Read Slowly

If I were to re-order these steps, this would definitely be number one. It is absolutely impossible to become a close reader without reading slowly.

When you whizz by a beautiful landscape, you don’t really get to appreciate the vast greenery of the land, the magic depth of the sky, or the idiosyncrasies of nature. The same is true for reading.

Close reading allows for greater understanding and appreciation of the author’s style and other rhetorical devices that help enhance the way the story is told. Reading slowly doesn’t mean reading one word at the pace of a tortoise; it simply means not glazing over the text, but reading each word carefully and deliberately.

Look Things Up

Despite what our ego may tell us, we don’t know everything. That’s where the dictionary, thesaurus, and plain old Google comes in. When you’re so engrossed in a text, it might be difficult to pause and look up a word, a phrase, or person the story refers to, but just imagine how much more fulfilling and engrossing the tale would be if you truly understood the references.

When reading closely it is always imperative to have a dictionary or cellphone near, this will also help improve your vocabulary.

Now, you don’t have to master all of these skills at once. Focus on strengthening one and soon the others will follow. Being a closer reader not only allows you to enjoy the full weight of the text, but it also aids you in making a well-thought-out, critical, engaging, and uniquely original response. As you read more closely you are strengthening your critical thinking skills and attention to details; you are also exercising your brain and keeping it stealthy enough to fight off certain conditions that affect the brain.

You can find more benefits of reading on a previous post of mine by clicking here

How have you become a more closer-er reader?


One thought on “How to be a close reader

  1. Love this one. My 12 year son who prefers audio books to reading (long story why and how) is such a patient reader. Listening to stories is like re-reading. So his writing and even speech is so much more descriptive because he has heard all the words instead of skimming for the plot.


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