In her article entitled “Scales of Reading”, Julie Orlemanski attempts to engage in the current debate held within the literary critical field between concepts of “distant reading” as advocated by Franco Moretti and the traditional hermeneutic notion of “close reading” of individual texts. While her ultimate goal is to reconcile these two individual notions of how literary study should take place in the future, her angle for doing so is to analyze the types of knowledge and the means of attainment that are generated through close reading. While she begins by focusing on the (in)famous Moretti quote that “knowing is not reading”, she then takes a step back in her analysis and takes great pains to through her acknowledgments of prior contributions to the debate to establish herself as a credible source.
Orlemanski’s method of argument is to bring a large body of work into her own in order to allow a simple comparison/contrast observation between the two competing schools of thought regarding the study of literary history. As such, the majority of the piece is lit review punctuated with interjections from the author to provide a different or supporting perspective. In addition to utilizing a variety of texts, she also makes ample use of the works and arguments of Franco Moretti to serve as the backdrop for her own understanding of close reading and how it is essential to the work of any literary historian.
Orlemanski establishes credibility through her use of well-known advocates of distant reading, and she then uses this credibility to introduce her own concepts of close reading. She even goes so far as to attempt to form a definition (a rhetorical move noticeably absent from many texts on similar subjects) when she writes, “Close reading is the performance, as it were, of a piece of writing that is treated as a script, or notation, for sensory impressions, affects, and meanings. By extension, it is the detailed description of the experience thus cognized. Close reading is typified by attentiveness to detail and by reflexivity, or self-conscious awareness of how experience continually modulates in interaction with the text at hand. Texts “happen” when they are read.” (224) In short, Orlemanski redirects the discussion of scale in reading from that of a theory to that of an experience or an event. Reframing the terms through the use of this definition she is able to present close reading as the latest edition of a tradition of literary criticism that began with the New Critics in the 1940s.
This claim of close reading as the current version of a practice that has been honed in literary departments for decades precedes an extended section of the piece devoted entirely to the history of the practice. This shift from primarily theoretical arguments to those that are historical is an effective transition to broaden the scope of the argument. As a result, Orlemanski is able to discuss the development of close reading as both a skill that can be developed and an intrinsic element required for the study of literary history and texts without having to define it solely as a contrasting notion to that of distant reading or the digital humanities.
The author’s attention to detail and consideration of broader contexts serve as an example to what she ends her article attempting to define: hermeneutics as a means of generating knowledge from written texts. She writes, “My wager is that close reading generates knowledge, this knowledge has specific value, and our disciplinary practices implicitly attest to this value…Hermeneutics, I think, is one of the readiest discourses for beginning this work.” (227) Broadly considered as the art of textual interpretation, hermeneutics intended to find relevance and meaning (or knowledge) in literary texts that is both valuable in the current time and meaningful in a wider context. She places hermeneutics at the heart of close reading and uses it to illustrate the fact that close and distant reading can both exist in the same world. Distant reading is many things, but it is not experiential, potentially personal, or capable of generating different types of knowledge for different users. In short, close reading remains a necessity because it is the only established means to unlock and attempt to understand the power of a specific text. Orlemanski writes, “Literature’s referential and rhetorical powers are real, but they do not reflect and affect the material world in a straightforward manner.” (228) She ultimately backs this claim with the examples of close reading that she performs in the beginning and the end of her article. The combination of theory, history, and examples work together to make this text both approachable, believable, and (dare I say) fun at times.