One of the subjects we have discussed at length in this course is how the Web provides historians with a wealth of materials. While this turn in scholarship is certainly a positive one (given how physical historical items are usually few and far between), the sheer mass of digital items provides a crux in how historians are expected to analyze all of these new materials. There is no way to fully understand, analyze, and perform scholarship on these historical, online materials using the same methods of analog historical scholarship. Analyzing materials through a framework of distant reading is how historical scholarship is performed at scale.
What is distant reading, and how does this concept usually applied to literary studies apply to historical scholarship? What is the difference between distant and close reading? I’d like to use the Great Gatsby to gain an idea of the distances between surface/close/distant reading. Firstly, a surface reading is gaining literal meaning from the words on the page. There are no layers to a text with a surface reading, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no interpretation going on. The codes on the page, meaningless without the application of significance, meld together to make meaning within the reader. With Gatsby, in the scene where the audience is first introduced to Daisy, a surface reading shows that Nick and Tom enter the room where Jordan and Daisy are hanging out. I think it’s probably a good idea to now think about close reading, as it is the method of literary interpretation that most people are most comfortable with. The act of close reading requires a reader to analyze words and their relationship to each other on a micro scale. In the scene with Daisy, we can see how words like “fresh”, “pale” and “fluttering” are used to describe the decor in Daisy’s room, and the “loud boom” of Tom shutting the door (and the consequent killing of the light air in the room) to signify Tom and Daisy’s relationship. Close reading derives meaning from taking each word and analyzing their interpretive potential and relationship to other words.
Distant reading, on the other hand, derives meaning from looking at the entire text and seeing if any patterns arise. Distant reading has interpretive potential from a scale point (why is this word used so often), whereas close reading has interpretive potential from a relational point (why is this word used in relation to the others). In thinking about the Great Gatsby, how can meaning be derived from tracing the patterns across the entire text instead of the words in one scene? For example, what can be made of the light, airy words being used to describe Daisy’s appearance, versus the fleshed, earthly words used to describe Myrtle’s appearance throughout the novel? How many times does Fitzgerald use words like “pale” and “fresh” to describe Daisy, and does the number of adjectives like this change through the course of the novel?
I think the use of distant reading, as it is applied above, can be used when thinking about history as well as literary scholarship. With the mass of materials that are posted on the web daily, what kind of patterns can be picked up and interpreted through distant reading as a scholarly practice, rather than a method of literary interpretation?
Check out these works that I referenced in this blog!
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner, 2004.