Reading Like a Detective

Photo of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson from the BBC series Sherlock


Hala Herbly

Close reading is a cornerstone of literature classes, but it can be a drag to teach. The excitement I sometimes feel about finding new and contradictory meanings for words a little difficult to translate to the average non-major (and even the average major). So this semester I decided to frame my close reading lesson in terms of detective work. Specifically, I decided to show them about fifteen minutes' worth an episode of the BBC drama Sherlock

Here's my reasoning. Sherlock is a rather eccentric "private consultant" with an uncanny ability to interpret crime scenes. He is able to do this through his well-honed powers of observation, which allow him to infer a shocking amount of information about people, places, and things. For example, upon his first meeting with his partner Dr. Watson, Sherlock is immediately able to tell that Watson is an Iraq war veteran who suffers from PTSD and has an estranged sibling. This close attention to detail makes Sherlock interesting to us, but intolerable to those around him (and this of course is the pleasure of watching the show). 

Like detective work, close reading requires a sharp attention to detail. The opening lines and stage directions of a play like Bernard Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, for example, tell us almost everything we need to know about the main character. But it is a skill to be able to infer this much from just a few details. For one thing, it takes a lot of patience with the text. It also, as I mentioned above, requires the ability to focus in on details that might appear to be insignificant. And finally, it involves a kind of confidence--confidence in the text to be able to produce meaning that goes "deeper" than initally apparent, and confidence in one's own reading ability and "sense" of the text. Though I would have hated to hear this myself in my late teens and early twenties, I always tell my class to follow their intuition or "hunches" about the text. Without the willingness to take this kind of interpretive risk, you end up with the dreaded "um, I think we might be reading too much into this." I try to discourage that kind of thinking by telling my class that any kind of interpretation, no matter how wild, is valid as long as they can back it up convincingly with evidence. 

I guess, then, that I try to teach my class to assume a particular kind of attitude toward the text. While I am always careful to lay out the historical context of any work that we're reading, I also think it's important to encourage them to "read into" the text. This demonstrates to them that meaning is something that they can learn how to create, rather than something they've simply inherited from the critics and readers before them. 


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