This past week in the Narrative Medicine course I am teaching, I introduced students to the approach to close reading (she refers to it as a drill) as taught by Dr. Rita Charon and her colleagues at Columbia University’s Program in Narrative Medicine. I then had students apply this to do their own close reading of JD Salinger’s short story “To Esme, With Love and Squalor.”
As a way of introducing them to close reading I had them read Rita Charon’s chapter “Close Reading” in her book Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness (Oxford University Press, 2006). This is a weighty chapter in a weighty book and I have discovered that many of my students were simply overwhelmed by it. So here is my streamlined version of ‘doing’ a close reading drill as applied to narrative medicine. I present the elements of close reading in the order I like to do them myself because it is more the way I read and analyze what I read.
1. Desire (Dr. Charon’s term). What appetite or emotion is satisfied by reading this? What bodily sensations do you have while reading this? What intellectual or emotional desires arise? Put more simply: what is the overall feeling you have when reading this? (A related and interesting question would be: And what does this reveal about you as the reader?)
2. Frame. What’s included and what’s left out of this narrative? Where did this first appear—what was the intended audience of the work? For instance, Salinger’s short story first appeared in the New Yorker in 1950. What can we surmise about his intended audience?
3. Temporal scaffolding. How is time handled in the narrative?
4. Form. Structure, genre, narrator, use of metaphor, allusion (especially what other works are referred to either explicitly or implicitly?), and diction
5. Plot. What happened.
Dr. Charon makes the case that learning the skills of close reading as applied to narratives, whether written or in plays, movies, etc, can help health care providers learn to be more attuned to the illness narratives of their patients. Careful reading, careful listening, it makes sense at some level and I am teaching that to my students. Salinger’s short story that I had them read and analyze through close reading is a complex but engaging piece of writing. It has enough content about the health effects of war—PTSD especially—that nurses and others in the health professions find it interesting. Salinger’s use of frame, time, diction, and metaphor are exquisite. So this short story makes for a good—but sufficiently challenging—narrative on which to practice close reading. I found that most students did well with this assignment and really dug in. Since class this past week fell on July 4th, this was an individual take-home assignment, so I have not yet had the opportunity to discuss it with them in class.
I always have these nagging questions in the back of my mind: Does close reading detract from the pleasure of reading? And by extension, does ‘close reading’ a patient’s illness narrative detract from the pleasure of the patient-provider interaction? Do we start thinking about patients less as people and more as stories to be analyzed, stories to be recorded in our heads and then later used as material for our own written stories? Does that start to distance us from our patients? Is it like walking up a familiar flight of stairs—pleasantly distracted—then thinking about walking up the stairs and by paying attention to it, tripping? If writers consciously try to pay attention to the craft of writing, does the art of their writing suffer?
I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite books, David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time (Sasquatch Books, 2010). He raises these questions as well—for writers and readers in general. He states, “(…) I recognize this as one of the fallacies of teaching literature in the classroom, the need to seek a reckoning with everything, to imagine a framework, a rubric, in which each little piece makes sense. (…) leaving us with scansion, annotation, all that sound and fury, a buzz of explication that obscures the elusive heartbeat of a book.”
If I used this class assignment again I would add the personal reflection writing prompt: Write about a time when you were so overwhelmed by emotions that you had difficulty communicating—or write about a time when you were caring for a patient experiencing this.