A small new feature has cropped up in the book section of the Atlantic Monthly, unique to the magazine as far as I can tell. It’s called “Close Reads,” and both installments that I’ve seen have been written by Christina Schwarz. In the most recent issue she illuminates a single paragraph from an Ann Beattie story, “Find and Replace”; the month before that she gave similar treatment to a tiny passage from John Updike’s “Villages” (subscription required for this one, though you can view the passage without it).
I love this feature. There’s something faintly fusty about it–back to basics–and yet a really great close reading can be so dazzling (Schwarz does pretty well with hers, unearthing lots from seemingly straightforward extracts while avoiding getting too schoolmarmish about it). There’s no room in a typical newspaper or magazine book review to perform analysis quite this detailed, even though it’s just the sort of work one hopes critics’ larger judgments are built on.
The nice thing about Schwarz’s analyses is that they not only unravel the meanings and effects packed into her chosen fragments, but show how they’re representative of that author’s particular bag of tricks. And there’s just something that feels salutary about having these little demonstrations of good reading tucked in among the large-scale reviews. If I were in charge of a book section, I’d lift this idea in a heartbeat. I’m sure there are many, say, book bloggers who would be only too happy to pitch in with some readings.