How to Really Make a World of Humanists: Helen Vendler Urges Training in Close Reading

In a recent essay for Harvard Magazine, the great Helen Vendler pushes back against our teach-to-the-test/Twitter-texting culture, eloquently calling on parents and teachers, including those teaching college, to train young people in close, as opposed to merely proficient, reading:

Without reading, there can be no learning. The humanities are essentially a reading practice. It is no accident that we say we “read” music, or that we “read” visual import. The arts (music, art, literature, theater), because they offer themselves to be “read,” generate many of the humanities—musicology, art history, literary commentary, dramatic interpretation. Through language, spoken or written, we investigate, describe, and interpret the world. The arts are, in their own realm, silent with respect to language; amply showing forth their being, they are nonetheless not self-descriptive or self-interpreting. There can be no future for the humanities—and I include philosophy and history—if there are no human beings acquainted with reading in its emotionally deepest and intellectually most extensive forms. And learning depends on reading as a practice of immersion in thought and feeling. We know that our elementary-school students cannot read with ease and enjoyment, and the same defect unsurprisingly manifests itself at every level, even in college. Without a base in alert, intense, pleasurable reading, intellectual yearning flags.

Intense, pleasurable, and alert reading; an “immersion in thought and emotion.” I like that. Nothing is ever really “self-descriptive or self-interpreting.” Helen Vendler has hit the nail on the head. Close reading is like Vipassana meditation: a practice aimed at heightened awareness to all that’s going on. Henry David Thoreau, in chapter 4 of Walden, promoted a similar sensibility when he wrote the following:

No method nor discipline can supersede the necessity of being forever on the alert. What is a course of history, or philosophy, or poetry, or the most admirable routine of life, compared with the discipline of looking always at what is to be seen? Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?

And close reading is not just close seeing, but the mother of writing. Here’s Vendler’s formulation:

[S]ince the best way to create good writing is by a child’s unconscious retention of complex sentence-patterns and vivid diction from reading, the act of writing . . . [should manifest as] a joyful form of expression . . .

So, readers make writers. And here’s her provocation to those teaching in elementary and middle schools:

[F]ar too much “learning” is purveyed in elementary and middle schools by worksheets and exercises. These are not natural ways into reading. The natural ways into reading are reading aloud, listening, singing, dancing, reciting, memorizing, performing, retelling what one has read, conversing with others about what has been read, and reading silently. As it is, our students now read effortfully and slowly, and with only imperfect comprehension of what they have seen. They limp into the texts of the humanities (as well as the texts of other realms of learning). I dream of children who have become true readers, who like to sing together, to act together, to read aloud together, and to be read to. After that mastery of reading, the encounter with science textbooks and lab manuals will not daunt them. In college, the history of science will seem a natural bridge to the humanities, and vice versa. Students who read well will look forward to discussing a problem in philosophy or writing a paper in art history. They will be the next humanists—but only if we make them so.

Making the next generation of humanists (secular and religious). Vendler has identified what’s at stake: liberal culture. Teaching young people how to really read things closely; to think critically and theorize; to dialogue intellectually with others; and to derive pleasure from intense reading in solitude: these are all threats to the agendas of fundamentalist religion and the corporatist state.

Close reading, in other words, is dangerous because it’s at war with all forms of sleep, stupidity, and corruption. And that’s why, if we’re parents and teachers, we should rediscover it and emphasize it. A citizenry that values and practices close reading is at the foundation of any hope for making a better world; a more rational and just world. A humanist world.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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