Close and Distant

In my attempts to assess the benefits/drawbacks of close and distant reading I’ve found that I tend to limit my view of each method by reducing them to two examples, each from an individual’s perspective while employing the methods during research. The first, the example of close reading, involves an individual analyzing a small selection of work, doing so with care in repeated reading of the entirety of a text, highlighting as he/she reads, ultimately interpreting the work using a personal filter or specific lens. This form of reading, the reading most of us are familiar with, is reading for the purpose of understanding the form (structure) and function (intended effect) of the text, with special attention being paid to context and the “meaning” or impact of the works content. As individuals we bring our life-experience to the table when we attempt to analyze, in this way we are better at understanding the humanity in a body of work. However, though we excel (at times) at relating to the text we also excel at ignoring, rejecting, or overlooking potentially important information. Because we are limited both by how much we can read and our comprehension/retention of that which has been read, we aren’t great at recognizing patterns present within a corpus. Our focus on a specific work or area limits us to a “canonical fraction” of the larger body of work it belongs to.

The second example, the example of distant reading, sees an individual involved in research requiring the ability to search within a corpus to find patterns and thematic or canonical connections. You’ll notice my description of this example is quite short, the length reflects my understanding of it. I’ve never really researched using distant reading methods, and until this course hadn’t really been exposed to it as a concept, and even after reading the assigned material find that it is difficult for me to wrap my head around. I recognize the potential in distant reading, it allows us to do what we never could, we can ask questions before unanswerable and establish more quickly connections and patterns within a vast collection of work. We can even find connections between corpora, something of tremendous impact for historians as it can take what might have been considered unrelated works and find links that perhaps we never could. I fear that this method, however, is detached and cursory. Where close reading involves a relationship between the humanity of the work and the reader, it strikes me that the same connection isn’t present in distant reading, because it isn’t reading in the traditional sense.

Using both close and distant reading while researching, I think, is an exciting prospect. The inherent negative aspects of the respective methods seem to balance out when the methods combine.

Of course, there is still the issue of the politics of curation, but I’ll save that topic for in-class discussion.


While searching for information about distant reading I came across this article, which I think you all may find interesting:





2 thoughts on “Close and Distant”

  1. “I’ve never really researched using distant reading methods, and until this course hadn’t really been exposed to it as a concept, and even after reading the assigned material find that it is difficult for me to wrap my head around.”

    Have you considered all the times you used CTRL + F (the “find” shortcut) when you search for a specific word in a larger text. I would argue that this is a very basic form of distant reading that most of us already use. Its power is underestimated because nowadays we take little tech-tricks like this for granted. Imagine you were interested in the Nazi Holocaust and you had to read a whole 500 page book about German history only to get to the parts where it talks about this period. In a digitized text you can jump right into the action by just using a keyboard shortcut (CTRL + F) and certain keywords (Holocaust, Nazi, Hitler, Anti-Semitic, Concentration Camp…).

    My argument is that we, the “Digital Era kids”, have been exposed to distant reading in one way or another. Even the most basic search technologies we have on disposal use concepts of distant reading to enhance the experience and increases the speed and breadth of knowledge turnover. It is an exciting and still fairly unexplored area in my opinion and I am looking forward to hopefully learn how to use some more intuitive distant reading tools.

    1. I have never used CTRL + F, and didn’t until reading your comment know it existed. Though, that has more to do with my being technologically inept compared to my peers (I still call my little brother to help me with computer troubles). I do believe I know what you’re getting at, and your point is well made. I should have phrased what you quoted differently, I know that I’ve used search engines and the like during my studies, I simply hadn’t a word to help describe what sort of method I was using. I think maybe that’s what I was getting at when I wrote of exposure to the concept, implying that had I been exposed to it as a tool by my educators I would be better prepared to write about it as such.

      I’m inclined to agree with your argument.

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