It’s All Just Reading

In class, I made the assumption that distant reading only refers to the digital methods of textual analysis we’re being introduced to. When Dr. Purcell corrected me, saying that distant reading might also apply to the wide breadth of reading a traditional researcher focused on a particular canon does, the issue got a bit more confused for me. But it makes sense: the types of connections drawn, coupled with the far-sighted biases of a human working with at least a shelf’s worth of text, do indeed qualify some traditional, physical-book readings as “distant”. Where, then, the line between close and distant reading lies, I’m not so sure. What’s more, I’m not sure it’s very important.

Interpretation of readings is highly subjective. Whether or not close or distant reading is good or bad depends entirely on the situation and desired outcome. I think in this day and age, it would be fair to say that any type of reading is “good”. But good for what? And how?

Close reading, forging an intimate connection with a text through sustained, focused attention to its subtleties, is probably best for individuals looking for singular diversions and/or wisdom. But historical inertia has steadily pushed us further and further away from the raw essence of a text. What, exactly, was lost when humans stopped memorizing and reciting vast tracts of oral literature, like the Iliad or Odyssey? Something in the rhythm of the words, the rhyming, their specific cadences and patterns. Something intangible that nonetheless added important meanings to the text. A similarly undefinable quality of the text was probably lost when, in the Middle Ages, readers shifted from mouthing out the words they read to reading them silently. Now, people complain that e-books are stealing the distinct odor of books, especially old books, which has spiced the study of bibliophiles the world over for millennia. All of these qualities are comprehensible in a system of “close reading”, and they speak to the principal benefits of close reading: the ability to envelop the reader in an all-encompassing world, to stimulate not just the mind but the body itself. Texts have become disembodied in our digital age, to the point that there are no real qualitative differences between the words of Marcus Aurelius on Project Gutenburg and the words of a middle-school blogger on Tumblr. This may seem like a strange thought, but considering the mostly subjective benefits of close reading, I think it’s relevant.

Distant reading, on the other hand — the work of scholars for millennia — offers different benefits. Distant reading allows contextualization and synthesis of many disparate texts and ideas. We go from a small ship exploring the vagaries of the coastline day by day, to a plane with a bird’s eye view, or even a satellite taking full-resolution scans with each orbit. The analogy makes even more sense when we realize the cartographers on the boat would be able to give us information on the type of fish available, the nuances of the ocean current, the exact quality of the weather and many more things, while the plane or satellite could only give us a less detailed, though far more broad and probably accurate, idea of the nature of the coastline. Distant reading is perfect for evaluation and analysis of many different texts. However, it has a downside in the sheer scale of its domain: the more information you have, the harder it is to put it all in a comprehensible order, and the easier it is to draw false conclusions from what’s before you*. Still, distant reading is great if you’re trying to understand a large body of text. Virtually every class I’ve ever taken has relied on distant reading, as the professor tells us the many interesting and relevant things s/he has picked up in her/his research. Distant reading, then, is probably better for groups trying to make sense of textual collections that no single individual wants to read themselves.

*This website, Spurious Correlations, gives a great example of one of the pitfalls of distant reading:

Close and Distant Reading

In the history of humankind, there’s only been a very brief span in which individuals could be well-read enough to be familiar with every book written; this happened so long ago that the concept today seems completely ridiculous and laughable. Since that time, we have constantly struggled with which books to read in our limited time, a distinctly human condition.

However, in the past 30 years or so, we’ve made a new advancement, in our ability to aggregate and analyze huge quantities of books. This art of “distant reading” allows for understanding to be drawn from millions of books at once, but brings forth another dilemma.: do we read a hundred books closely, or a million books distantly? It’s a difficult question to answer, but I’ll do my best to briefly explore it in the next 500 words.

I view the distinction between close and distant reading similarly to how Ramsay views searching and browsing: the former allows one to witness and experience a single piece, to get truly intimate with it and understand it, while the latter provides much needed structure and context, allowing one to know where to place and how to interpret the information of the former.

When I think of close reading, I think of reading in the classical sense – reading by candlelight, with notes scrawled in the margin, reading until your eyes are weary and your thoughts grow dim, falling in love with a book, or perhaps not, and trudging through it anyway, to see the road less traveled. As to be expected from its multi-millenia reign, close reading has plenty of merits: it captures a first-person interpretation of the period, it holds near-limitless qualitative depth, and it’s a ton of fun (an often underrated quality).

However, close reading doesn’t come without drawbacks – without either some existing knowledge or research done during reading, it’s pretty hard to pinpoint what inspired this piece, and harder still to know the piece’s impact after its creation. Drawing inter-piece and cross-cultural parallels becomes significantly harder, without an understanding of the material at hand, and even then, requires very precise knowledge to do it well.

Of course, this is a rather narrow interpretation of close reading, basically limiting the act of “close reading” to what happens between the covers of the book, with the existing knowledge and expected research that goes into the analysis considered separate actions – this is for good reason, which will hopefully make sense in a second.

And so we come to distant reading – the antithesis, in which a book is never touched and a story never weaved, all for the tradeoff of “reading” books thousands of times faster than humanly possible. It’s wickedly efficient, and takes all the cons of close reading pretty easily in stride, but at what cost? A purely distant reader, with their brilliant understanding of historical context, cultural parallels, and far-reaching effects, never knows the amazement of exploring a world, the excitement of talking it over with a friend, the satisfaction of closing a book. They entirely remove the human element of reading, making it a cold, calculating, exacting science.

This too comes with drawbacks – despite being automated by computers, even algorithms have biases and interpretations, but with the unfortunate scientific weight to be “non-debatable.” However, that’s a discussion for another day

With their pros and cons so conveniently complementary, I can only believe that reading is done best with a combination of the two strategies. Understanding the structure, and appreciating the art. Browsing the library, while finding the book.

How Beneficial is Distant Reading

Distant reading: it’s something that I’m sure we have all done.  Quiz on an assigned reading?  Let’s speed read it.  Want to refresh your knowledge of a given subject?  Let’s glance over it.  Distant reading is something that we likely do every day.  But how is there any merit to it whatsoever?

Close reading is obviously a much better tool to use.  In class on Thursday, I exemplified how close reading can more accurately determine context when text mining.  A distant read of the data might show the context is cuisine.  While cuisine could definitely play a role, it is the way that the context of the joke is actually delivered.  A close read is able to ascertain that the true context of the joke is the economy.  While the distant read did not reveal what the close read did, does that mean that its use is without merit and, thus, a waste of time?

I would suggest that this is not the case.  In jokes, it is important to understand how the comedian delivers the joke.  In this case, he ironically delivered the joke by disguising the true context with Chinese food.  The method he delivered the joke is not as important as the context, but if you understand both, you might be able to determine more info, such as if there are themes present in the way things initially look and how they really are.  This is definitely beneficial in many different ways.  Also, if you have a strong understanding of a subject, you might be able to do a more distant read than a close read on a paper or project.  But, it is extremely important to not only do distant reads, but close reads.

In other words, my main point is this: distant reading can be very beneficial when used in conjunction with close reading.  With that being said, in academia and research I do not think that distant reading is good.  Research takes time.  You cannot adequately give the subject justice by working on it for only 5 hours.  It takes a lot more time than this.  In fact, it might cause your field to be less-respected.  As it was said in class, any conclusions that comes out of distant reading is by chance and “b.s.”  As hard as this might be for students, this is something important to hear.  You can’t do your work justice by going “half-a****” on it.  Work hard on the project and give it the amount of time that it actually needs.

Distant vs. Close Reading

Distant and close reading techniques for discovering new information from known texts have their advantages and disadvantages.

Distant reading is a technique that is used to scan large amount of texts for information. This is a technique that is useful when one wants to examine volumes of work over an extended time period. Computer programs can be used to scan thousands of works with millions of words and phrases to spot common trends. This is a large advantage for distant reading. Distant reading can be automated. This method involves less manpower than close reading. More information can be found at a quicker pace.

However, there are complaints that this information is shallow. If a program searched works in a given time period for some specific phrase, the returned works or excerpts from the works may not provide enough context to give adequate information about search terms. There is also the issue of our ever-changing vocabulary. Words do not necessarily have the same meanings as they did in the past.

Close reading examines a smaller amount of texts. Close reading is used to find “hidden” trends or meanings in texts that a method like distant reading might miss. This is a method that is used when examining smaller amounts of text than in distant reading. Currently, close reading is very human dependent. Computers are not currently able to spot some hidden messages or decipher human metaphors. For example, the many hidden meanings in the Shakespeare sonnet that we read in class would likely not have been found by using some computer program to scan the text. The technique of close reading also allows the reader to have context. Again, if a reader knows that he or she is reading a sonnet instead of a historical novel, the reader can look for different trends or meanings. The sonnet may have a specific rhyme scheme or theme that would not be picked up by a text-scanning computer program.

However, as great as close reading sounds, the technique has a cost. This technique takes a lot of time and manpower. The close reading experiment we did in class with the Shakespeare sonnet was great, but we took almost 30 minutes to examine a fourteen line sonnet. Shakespeare himself wrote 154 sonnets. If we were to examine each of these sonnets in the same amount of time, this would take 77 hours. This amount of time, spanning over three days, would be devoted only to the examination of Shakespeare’s sonnets. While Shakespeare was a great poet, and these are probably the highest quality sonnets, these are only a percentage of all sonnets, or poetry for that matter.

In any case, these methods have their advantages and disadvantages. I am not sure if one method is better than the other. Which method being used should depend on the situation. If one wants to examine a lot of information for key words or phrases, distant reading should be used. If one wants to discover new meanings or patterns in a work or group of works, close reading would be the better option. These are both interesting, useful techniques that should be used when each is necessary.

Close & Distant Reading

I can see where both of these techniques are beneficial for researching. Close reading makes me think of dissecting a body of work. You as a scholar want to understand what the author is trying to get across, with every word. I did not know how close you could get to a piece of work until we did our in class exercise. Looking over the sonnet that Shakespeare wrote, Dr. Pandora showed me that you can focus on many different aspects and can even spend months or years on one. For example, she said you can focus on a phrase and analyze it for months at a time. Months for a few words! If this skill is honed, it can be very powerful in research.

Like I said earlier, I think distant reading has value as well. If you do not know what you are looking for, skimming through multiple pieces of literature in an attempt to understand it enough to know if it is useful can be productive. Researchers can waste a lot of time reading material that may or may not pertain to the topic they are working on. Digitally, these skills can be amplified greatly. Using a computer to search for key words or phrases among thousands of documents can be a great tool. Sometimes it may even allow you to discover works that you may have never uncovered. However, this could make the researcher lazy because it can be seen as the computer doing most of the work.

Now, I do think that these two techniques can work together. You may start out distant reading to find relevant material or material that is interesting. Then, you can take a closer work to analyze the piece more closely to understand it. I think this is something that researchers are already engaged in because of the huge amount of material that is in the world. Like Ramsey says, there is no way that anyone could come close to reading everything in the world, which is why it is important to hone these skills.

If I were to choose one of the techniques over the other, I would probably choose close reading. My reasoning is that you actual get to the heart of the material and try to understand what the author was trying to say. I think you learn more when you actually understand the piece of literature more.