I can’t help but notice that the reviews for this book are all glowing. I find this curious as my own view is that the book is ok, but has more flaws than strong points. However, most reviewers praise the book for being easy to understand, and friendly in tone, so I assume that it appeals to teachers who feel daunted by the task of close reading, which is very fair, and I think the authors have appealed to their target market with good sense. I, on the other hand, as a High School AP teacher and Gifted and Talented coordinator am simply not the target audience. I was asked to review the book by our school’s curriculum coordinator which I have done.
The tone of the book made me suspicious immediately, with lines like “let’s borrow some language from the CCSS” or “Today the common core state standards have brought the idea of close reading back into the educational landscape.” Call me cynical, but the “gleefully sycophantic” tone rubs me the wrong way. It doesn’t feel genuine, but instead “bought and paid for.” They are writers for Heinemann, after all, so this is no huge surprise. Beyond the objectionable tone, the second statement is also untrue. AP Lit and Lang have been emphasizing close reading for years (decades?) so one can at best claim that the CCSS has taken its direction from College Board. Of course, the authors, in a very brief introduction to the history of close reading and literary criticism point out that the practice has been around since the 1940s, so it’s hardly new anyway. In fact, the CCSS’s fascination with close reading is oddly retrogressive. Are they not aware that many other forms of criticism have emerged that challenge and even supplant close reading? My guess is that they are, but in close reading they find a general practice – looking at details – that strikes them as useful in general for students to know, and I won’t argue with that.
Objections about tone and credibility aside, some of the lessons are decent ones. I like their idea of “lenses” (narrowing ones focus while exploring a text to a specific idea or structural feature) but I wish they had not called the practice a “lens” as the “lens” in literary theory is already a well-known but different concept, so students raised on this new “lens” in middle school may then be confused when the term is implied differently later on in AP and college. The author’s idea of a lens is also not new. In college we called it “tracing” as in “trace” your way through Macbeth looking for Shakespeare’s development of the theme of blood and guilt. But the author’s are successful at cleverly repackaging old ideas in what feels like a reasonable fresh way, which is itself typical in education and not a fault limited to this book in the least. The author’s also offer sound advice about developing close reading rituals, and about working to connect close reading as a practice in English class with close reading in life. This idea may strike some people as a bit forced, especially those not disposed to reflecting analytically on their lives, but I found this section perfectly reasonable.
While I’ll admit that the book has a healthy handful of useful activities and ideas, its major flaw are the so called examples of close reading. Nowhere in the book can one find a solid, well developed example of actual close reading. Often the examples provided – a couple hand scrawled sentences stuffed into the small boxes of a worksheet chart – are generalizations and personal “reactions” to a text. Never do they provide a demonstration of what quality close reading actually looks like. Never do we see a student engaged directly with a text, citing an author’s language, examining the text for an author’s use of literary language (nowhere in the text do they discuss an author’s use of personification, metonymy, etc., or the syntactical structure of an author’s language) or analyzing how an author’s language enhances the meaning of her text. This is unfortunate because, if my supposition is accurate that the book is aimed at those teachers who are least familiar with close reading, then I can guarantee that these teachers will not walk away with a robust sense of what students are being expected to do later in their careers, or what is actually possible when engaging with a text in a detailed, thoughtful way. Despite the amount of verbiage in this book that extolls the virtues of “reading closely and analytically” the authors really don’t succeed in modeling this beyond a very introductory level.