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: http://www.tylervigen.com/

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