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Close reading describes, in literary criticism, the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text. Such a reading places great emphasis on the single particular over the general, paying close attention to individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold as they are read.
The technique as practiced today was pioneered (at least in English) by I. A. Richards and his student William Empson, later developed further by the New Critics of the mid-twentieth century. It is now a fundamental method of modern criticism. Close reading is sometimes called explication de texte, which is the name for the similar tradition of textual interpretation in French literary study, a technique whose chief proponent was Gustave Lanson.
Close reading can be compared/contrasted to the concept of distant reading which is defined by literary scholar Franco Moretti as "understanding literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data."
Literary close reading and commentaries have extensive precedent in the exegesis of religious texts, and more broadly, hermeneutics of ancient works. For example, Pazand, a genre of middle Persian literature, refers to the Zend (literally: 'commentary'/'translation') texts that offer explanation and close reading of the Avesta, the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. The scriptural commentaries of the Talmud offer a commonly cited early predecessor to close reading. In Islamic studies, the close reading of the Quran has flourished and produced an immense corpus. But the closest religious analogy to contemporary literary close reading, and the principal historical connection with its birth, is the rise of the higher criticism, and the evolution of textual criticism of the Bible in Germany in the late eighteenth century.
A truly attentive close reading of a two-hundred-word poem might be thousands of words long without exhausting the possibilities for observation and insight. To take an even more extreme example, Jacques Derrida's essay Ulysses Gramophone, which J. Hillis Miller describes as a "hyperbolic, extravagant... explosion" of the technique of close reading, devotes more than eighty pages to an interpretation of the word "yes" in James Joyce's modernist novel Ulysses.