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With the quick advances in book digitization, new strategies become available for the study of literature. As Kathryn Schulz suggests in her article “What is distant reading”, we are now able to study literature without reading the books. By comparing statistics on grammar and semantic patterns or word frequency, one is able to determine in which era and in which style the text was written. As defended by Franco Moretti, this method could actually be more valid than the traditional one. When studying the literature of one particular era, the usual way is reading a selection of the works of that era. Traditionally, this selection is composed of the most well known works, which are also the most studied ones. But what about the thousand others that nobody is studying, but that are as representative of the era as the well known ones? A human being cannot reasonably read thousands of books in detail, but a computer can! And with all these books automatically scanned and digitized by libraries around the world and companies like Google, it becomes possible to let the computer do the work. Mr Moretti uses data analysis techniques to study large quantities of texts in a manner a human being could not, treating literature as abstract pieces of information and using techniques borrowed from computer science.

However, these kinds of techniques could also have a negative impact on literature study, as suggested by Paul Matthew Gooding, Claire Warwick and Melissa Terras in their paper “The Myth of the New: Mass Digitization, Distant Reading and the Future of the Book”, presented at the 2012 Digital Humanities conference in Hamburg. They argue that, while there is a great appeal in the use of mass digitized data to analyze literature, it is dangerous to rely only upon this, discarding any other method of study closer to close reading. They say that the exclusive use of distant reading loses track of the authorial voice which gives its originality to a work. Furthermore, the context of a work is of utmost importance in the analysis of the text, which is also completely ignored by distant reading advocates. The appeal of distant reading is understandable by the power and the scale of the analysis offered by these techniques, but we should also be very careful and keep the quality of the research in mind, rather than just quantity. If you want to experience distant reading for yourself, you can try Voyant Tools, a web-based text analysis environment, as presented during the “Introduction to Distant Reading Techniques with Voyant Tools” workshop at the 2012 Digital Humanities conference.

At the opposite side of the reading philosophy scale is close reading. This philosophy focuses text analysis on word-by-word and line-by-line study. This method is particularly useful in the analysis of poems, where the sound, the syntax and the rhythm of the work are as important as the meaning. The study of these features can also help uncover hidden connotations, not obvious at first glance. By accompanying close reading analysis with graphical representation, the process becomes more intuitive and new knowledge can be discovered. This is exactly the purpose of tools such as Myopia, developed at Miami University by Manish Chaturvedi, Gerald Gannod, Laura Mandell, Helen Armstrong and Eric Hdgson and presented during the 2012 Digital Humanities conference in Hamburg in their talk “Myopia: A Visualization Tool in Support of Close Reading”.

Two of the talks mentioned in this blog post are available in video form :

The Myth of the New: Mass Digitization, Distant Reading and the Future of the Book

Myopia: A Visualization Tool in Support of Close Reading