English departments at most universities have for the past few decades in part justified their disciplinary existence on the grounds that they produce students who are good “close readers.” To be a close-reader in part means to be an active reader, but in practice it is also means literally “close,” focused on how small units – punctuation, words, sentences – convey meaning. The story goes something like this: if students learn to read actively, then they will become ethical free agents who we no longer be duped by the ideologies they encounter. They will be, in short, better consumers, able to dissect the assumptions and claims made by the messages they encounter and assign them with proper value. And, importantly, this ability to read is a transportable skill, a skill that will payoff in any professional field and thus justify English as a major.
When pressed, this line of reasoning seems to me at best troubled. It seems far from clear to me that reading skills really are transportable from one sphere to another. The ability to read a novel, in my mind, requires a much different set of reading skills than the ability to read, for example, a newspaper or a blog. Different mediums and genres appear to demand different modes of reading, some which value our ability to ignore or forget information as much as to focus closely on it. The sales pitch for close reading frequently ignores real problems about how the material coniditon of the object of study change reading practices and meaning. And, yet, this story about the value of close reading persists, perhaps because the story strategically allows English departments to resolve certain educational problems. Close reading, importantly, is a very democratic form of scholarship. If the goal of an education in English is to become a good close reader, then it ceases to matter precisely what or how much you have read. Indeed, the only real value in reading a lot is that it might improve your ability as a reader. Conveniently, then, people from all different backgrounds can become close-readers, and critics can sidestep the vexing question of what to canonize. Moreover, close reading is cheap. If the goal of the English department is to produce close readers who can learn their skills on any literary object, then institutions no longer need to make a financial investment in particular, expensive literary objects, like rare books. The idea of close reading might fall apart when pressed or thought about too hard, but close reading will likely remain the central practice of English departments so long as it can serve such strategic purposes.
But, might close reading also play a strategic role within the Mormon Church? Our culture, to a large extent, is forged by the relationship of church members to a particular book, The Book of Mormon. At the heart of our relationship to this book seems to be the promise that we all can turn to it and receive our own inspiration. Our relationship with it is, notably, also always removed from the material object of The Book of Mormon, since we read only copies of the plates and have no access to the plates themselves. Mormons, I suspect, have a variety of reading habits that are not at all “close.” Sometimes we look closely at passages, but often we skim, read according to strict schedules (focusing on the amount we read each night rather than the content), or read in conjunction with glossings from lesson manuals. But our tendency to read through the filter of these glossings aside, Moroni holds out the promise that we each can be good readers of The Book of Mormon and know whether or not it is true. Unlike, say, the Catholic Church, we have no organized clergy – no endowed, professional readers of our text. Perhaps that is to some extent a loss. There is, I believe, value in having professional readers who can comb archives and learn to read in the context of other objects, producing readings that are decidedly undemocratic, because based on materials that few have access to, but that can also be revealing and provide more “accurate” judgments. And, yet, because the ultimate meaning of The Book of Mormon in our culture I believe is most often configured in lying within the reader’s personal inspiration, we have also strategically invested The Book of Mormon with the ability to be transported into various different cultures and to speak back to a heterogeneous group of readers. Despite our doctrinal focus on continuity with the past, our typical reading practices leave little room for accessing the history of the text itself. We, famoulsy, liken the text to ourselves, seeing ourselves in its words.Perhaps this transportability, the ability to transcend both the place and historical moment of its composition that is gained by investing the power to make meaning in the reader as opposed to the text or to the material object of the gold-plates now turned book, was exactly what its writers intended when they wrote for the ever-shifting moment of “our days.” This practice of reading is democratic, certainly, but also egocentric. Are there other models of reading available, and would they change our culture?