Close reading essential for understanding book’s context, scholar argues

May 8, 2016, 11:17 p.m.

In a recent interview about her book The Social Imperative: Race, Close Reading, and Contemporary Literary Criticism, Paula Moya of the Stanford Department of English argues that the practice of “close reading” literature is important for racial literacy, providing a unique context for understanding race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Close readings require paying attention to details and patterns in the text, which result in deeper insight into not only the author’s intentions but also the contemporary cultural climate. Traditionally, close readings have paid much attention to formal literary structures, but Moya encourages a type of close reading that emphasizes the social context of the book as well.

“I think sometimes when [people] are reading novels, they’re not as conscious of the fact that literature is, by virtue of the fact that they’re reading, influencing their ideas about the way the world is. It is, in a sense, helping to build their schemas about—in this case—race,” Moya said in a short video interview.

Moya’s work involves reading and studying works across different disciplines, but the works are all united by the theme of race and ethnicity.

Though Moya points out that many multicultural works are written by minority authors, the identity of the author is less pressing than what the work itself is trying to convey. However, literature by writers of color are generally “under-read,” according to Moya, which is another reason to turn to close readings—to highlight minority authors’ works and perspective.

Moya examines works by minority authors, such as Junot Díaz and Toni Morrison, and looks at how identities such as race, gender and sexuality matter to people.

“In their fiction, they take a question and then explore every angle of it. They are neither seeking an easy answer nor writing to soothe themselves. They are writing to understand weighty social issues and work them out in fictional forms,” Moya said in an interview with Stanford News.

“Literature is one of the most sophisticated ways that people have to both create meaning and to explore meaning,” she added.

Contact Anne-Marie Hwang at amhwang ‘at’

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