War and Rumors of War
Spring 2012

Assignment 1: Close Reading

  • 5 pages or so, double spaced
  • First draft due: January 31, in class -- bring THREE copies
  • Peer reviews and conferences next week
  • Second draft due: February 7, in class

For your first piece of formal writing, I'll ask you to do what we in the literature business call a "close reading." A close reading is pretty much what it sounds like: an analysis of a story or a book that helps us understand something interesting (and not obvious) about it through close examination. Close reading is the backbone of any kind of textual analysis, whether in literature, philosophy, political theory, etc.: when you analyze a text, you read it closely and you try to show your reader how you came to your conclusions about it.

In class and in the online forums, we have already been doing close reading. What you're about to do will be a little bit more formal, but the technique is exactly what you've been practicing for the last couple of days: you start with what you find interesting, you tease out a thread, and then you try to follow that thread throughout the text.

You can follow any thread you think is interesting, but here are some that suggest themselves:

  • You might write a paper about love in All Quiet on the Western Front. Who, or what, do the men in the novel love? How do they love? How does the experience of combat change the way they love, the objects of their love? How does it affect the way they think about sex, about women, about family? Is love an answer to their problems? Is it part of their problem? (You'll find that's probably not simple.)
  • You might write a paper in which you explore the psychological changes the soldiers in the novel undergo. What were these boys like before they went to war? What did they value, love, hate, fear? How did that change in training? How did that change in combat? What are the implications of these changes for the boys as men, as soldiers, as citizens, as people? (Again, you may find that's not simple.)
  • You might write a paper about the combat experience itself. What are the most important elements of combat as it is portrayed in the novel? How do the soldiers adapt to it, or fail to adapt to it? What -- for better or worse -- do they learn from combat?
  • Write a paper in which you explore the implications of this line, on page 123: "We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men; we are crude and sorrowful and superficial -- I believe we are lost."

There are, of course, many other ways to go with this -- and if one suggests itself to you, follow it. But consider all the prompts above as exactly what they are: starting points. Begin there, and see where the paper takes you. Take a chance. You've got nothing to lose, and much to gain.

Last modified: Friday, January 27, 2012, 9:33 AM