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.

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