Even in our nation’s founding documents, the Inaugural Pronoun “We” has a hard time surviving the language that surrounds it. James Boyd White, in When Words Lose Their Meanings, brilliantly shows, in his close reading of both the Declaration and the Constitution, how nearly their respective “We’s” come to foundering in the turbulence of everyday reality.
God’s reading of us, while rooted in flesh and bone, is not limited to them. Or better said: flesh and bone, in God’s eyes, provide an absolutely reliable witness of our moral health (or lack thereof). No mystery there: God made human flesh and bone that way, as unambiguous representatives of who we are and of what we have made of ourselves.
I never intended to get Frost’s birds by heart. For some months I’d been memorizing various of Frost’s lyric poems, moving from one to the next without agenda, allowing my taste for Frost’s wit and craft to guide me. But before I knew it, there they were, his birds, some named, some not: quiet, without fanfare, easy to miss, almost wanting to be missed.
The initial reason is that Miss Irene Ashley, my ninth and tenth grade English teacher, told me (and her other students) that we had to. Her assignments: A selection from Hiawatha in ninth grade (“By the shores of Gitchee Gumee…”) and from Idylls of the King in tenth (“And slowly answered Arthur from the barge…”)
It had never occurred to me that close reading could be applied to the heaps of verbiage produced by dictators—not, at least, until I picked up Daniel Kalder’s recently published The Infernal Library: On Dictators, the Books They Wrote, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy.
I’ve been reading Cleanth Brooks’ 1947 classic The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry,one of the key works that in the post-World War II decades established “close reading” as the main pedagogical tool for understanding poetry as a unified whole (rather than an artfully coded record of attitudes requiring historical and biographical translation).
Each Lent, my wife and I read Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgement, by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. This brilliant book is a close reading of the scenes in each of the four Gospels where Jesus is on trial before the authorities, as well as a close-reading of readers’ own hearts.