This is “Reading a Text Carefully and Closely”, section 2.3 from the book Writers' Handbook (v. 1.0).
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In this section, we’ll use an excerpt from one of the most famous inaugural addresses in American history, from John F. Kennedy in 1961, to demonstrate how to do a close reading by separating fact and opinion; uncovering assumptionsA belief that underlies a writer’s proposition or statement., biasesA deeply held and ingrained belief that can cloud one’s perspective as a writer or reader., and preconceptionsAn idea already held by a writer or reader in advance of making or receiving a textual statement.; and pursuing the implicationsWhat readers can infer from statements a writer makes. of textual statements. (The address is available in its entirety through the Note 2.5 "Gallery of Web-Based Texts" in Section 2.1 "Browsing the Gallery of Web-Based Texts", in text form at the Avalon Project, and in video form at the C-SPAN Video Library.)
To prepare yourself to develop a thoughtful, critical reading of a text like this, you might begin with the Twenty Questions about Self, Text, and Context from Chapter 1 "Writing to Think and Writing to Learn", filling in each blank with “Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.”
Note that most of these questions can’t be answered until you’ve made a first pass through the text, while others almost certainly require some research to be answered fully. It’s almost a given that multiple readings will be required to fully understand a text, its context, and your orientation toward it.
In the first annotation, let’s consider Roger (Student A) and Rhonda (Student B), both of whom read the speech without any advance preparation and without examining their biases and preconceptions. Take a look at the comment boxes attached to the excerpt of the first five paragraphs of Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.
Roger does not have any problem with a lack of separation between church and state. Rhonda is unwilling to accept any reference to God in any government setting. Should Roger at least recognize the rationale for separating church and state? Should Rhonda recognize that while the founders of this country called for such a separation, they also made repeated reference to God in their writings?
Perhaps both Roger and Rhonda should consider that Kennedy’s lofty goal of eliminating poverty was perhaps an intentional rhetorical overreach, typical of inaugural addresses, meant to inspire the general process of poverty elimination and not to lay out specific policy.
Roger sees war as a necessary evil in the search for peace. Rhonda sees war as an unacceptable evil that should never be used as a means to an end. To hear what Kennedy is saying, Roger probably needs to consider options other than war and Rhonda probably needs to recognize that history has shown some positive results from “necessary” wars.
If Roger and Rhonda want to be critical thinkers or even if they want have a meaningful conversation about the text, they must think through and past their own personal biases and preconceptions. They must prepare themselves to be critical readers.
In the next set of annotations, let’s look at what you could do with the text by making several close readings of it, while also subjecting it to the preceding Twenty Questions. Perhaps your first annotation could simply be designed to separate statements of verifiable fact from those of subjective opinion.
A careful reader who looks for assumptions and implications of statements will find plenty of them. For example, the beginning of Kennedy’s Inaugural Address includes many assumptions. In your second annotation, you might go on to target some of these assumptions and offer background thoughts that help you identify and understand these assumptions.
Just as you must try to trace a statement back to its underlying assumptions, you must also try to understand what a statement implies. Even when different readers are looking at the same text, they can sometimes disagree about the implications of a statement. Their disagreements often form the basis for their divergent opinions as readers.
Take Kennedy’s assumption that the named people at the beginning of his speech deserve preferential attention. Here are some possible implications of the statement you could come up with that result from that single assumption:
You could add more to this list of possible implications, but notice how much you’ve done with the first paragraph of the speech already, simply by slowing down your critical reading process.