I’m afraid by the time I post this blog all meaning will be wrung out of it by the unfortunate incident of my own proximity. It is much like reading the same word too often:

Reading

Reading

Reading

Reading

Reading

Reading

Reading

Reading

It’s all nonsense by the end.

While in this scenario the answer might be a measured dose of distance, a different kind of distance is also being prescribed (at least as reading material) to literature students, material that might either endanger or contribute greatly to meaning-making. Touted as the counterpart to close reading, distant reading has emerged.

Distant reading continues to intrigue me while also making me incredibly hostile. I first learnt about it at Cardiff University’s Digital Cultures Network’s Digital Cultures Reading group (CUDCNDCRG or Mikey’s Reading Group for short) where the discussion focused on the extreme nature of Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading that saw distant reading as a flawless answer to the problem of too many books. I’m sure some will agree that “too-many-books” isn’t a real problem.

But if it were, distant reading has come to solve it. It allows us to read hundreds, if not thousands and millions of books at once. Not really, but it allows us to do something like reading – to feed millions of books into a machine for a computer to read, and spout sense, data and patterns at the other end. It’s like skim-reading but with photographic memory. But the question is, as always, is it useful? How can we make it useful? And does it already happen?

The model as Moretti presents it isn’t wholly appealing, but there are ways to counteract the binary that Moretti seems to enforce between close and distant reading. Instead of seeking to do away with human intervention by using computers, perhaps it would be more useful to learn how distance operates on human vision and understanding.

A fine metaphor for my argument would be walking through a park where one can miss as much by looking distantly as closely. For example, I could step into a puddle (or worse, a lake) if I spent all my time looking into the distance. Or, were I looking close to the ground, I could miss the Frisbee flying into my face. Either strategy offers humiliating oversights. Unfortunately, it takes a bit of close reading to understand the nuance of this metaphor. Therefore, it makes sense to reap the benefits of both types of reading.

But to the question of usefulness I have one broad answer: Of course it’s useful to interrogate information in new ways. However, the outcome of such interrogation also needs to be informative, and I don’t know how I would accomplish such a task. This is why it makes sense to close read distant reading and vice versa. Luckily for us literature students, we’ve been close reading for years, and distant reading strategies are built into the places we need it most, i.e. Google and Twitter. We can search through masses of data; trending topics are highlighted; there have been moves towards archiving at least parts of it; analytics are becoming more precise and easier to access; people behind the scenes are making this information more user-friendly; some of us are getting better at interpreting the data.

Personally, I think I’ll be using big data and distant reading strategies for broadening the research on my own MA dissertation. I’ll be looking at the use of subtitles in eighteenth-century novels, especially what distant readers have done so far with the genre. But while distant reading will be useful in some ways, it’ll be back to my comfort zone of close reading for the bulk of my work to extrapolate something meaningful.

As they say, distant reading makes the heart grow fonder. Of close reading.

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