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.

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