Balance

“A state in which different things occur in equal or proper amounts or have an equal or proper amount of importance”—this is Merriam-Webster’s definition of balance. The issue that suggests that close reading and distant reading dwell in a sort of unfavorable contrariety is really a matter of concern over how to balance their unique assets without unknowingly slipping into excessive dependency upon a computer that has only, at best, a measure of anthropomorphic essence. The real problem is how to know when to rely on one tactic or the other, and how much to do so.

In a way, close reading can be more extensive than distant reading. When a person reads closely and with attentiveness, the words that are encountered are then registered and these accumulate, forming a network of interactions and connections that are really only bound by the person’s own, individual level of imagination and openness. A computer, on the other hand, searches countless sources and materials for only a few words, the search terms, and whatever other words or associations happen to be attached to those search terms. Extensiveness is relative.

Distant reading should more often be regarded as a tool, an apparatus made to aid in the accomplishment of a task but still able to rely on the crucial component of human manipulation, which is especially imperative when considering the humanities. Large databases and the ability to be able to data mine are treasurable resources when this is kept in mind. However, the proper utilization of such a system can be difficult to carry out when what exactly is its appropriate form of employment is left ambiguous and equivocal.

Perhaps database programs require a drastic system overhaul in order to meet changing requirements. People have started to adapt to this situation as well. In “Theorizing Research Practices We Should Have Theorized Twenty Years Ago,” Ted Underwood illustrates a very interesting point in that computer scientists are and have been far more philosophical than many people think. He mentions the relevance of Boolean (true, false), and this is certainly a logic-based, philosophical concept. And, of course, there are much more nuances to the ways in which computer scientists and programmers are sensitive to changing environments. Those within the discipline of the humanities also find themselves having to adapt and learn techniques to take advantage of these databases.

In the end, professionals in nearly every field will find that adaption to technology is necessary and that balance is crucial. The notions of close reading and distant reading are only specific facets of a larger occurrence: the continuing compression and convergence of human and technological coexistence in the work field.

So little time

The old lament “So many books, so little time” that allegedly originated from Frank Zappa addresses a problem that the digital humanities hope to alleviate. However, as it begins to fix the problem of time consumption, there are concerns being raised over the research deficiencies that also follow.
A close reading is the act of meticulously examining a specific media. When a human does a close reading it involves the incorporation and the conceptualization of all prior knowledge collected. A human can make connections from the media being inspected to outside sources that were learned years and years prior that might not be obviously connected. A human also understands the humor and differing cultural aspects that might be embedded within the media. This insight, however, comes with a price in the form of hours and hours of time commitment and the possibility of human error. Take for example, the DailyCognition’s “Blog of Unusual & Funny News Worldwide” article titled “7 Illusions Illustrating how Powerful & Stupid Your Mind Can Be” where they share brain teasers to demonstrate how easily the human mind can be tricked. The first one on the list is the phrase “A bird in the the bush” where the second “the” is on the second line, so that the reader almost always misses it the first reading. The next teaser appears to be the word “Good”, but upon looking at it closer, the word evil is written within. Number six asks the visitor to read the following phrase and count how many times the letter “F” is in the text: “FINISHED FILES ARE THE RESULT OF YEARS OF SCIENTIFIC STUDY COMBINED WITH THE EXPERIENCE OF YEARS….”. The average reader only counts three F’s the first time. However, there are six.
Converting to utilizing the internet search engines to find information and “read” the media, known as “distant reading”, has opened the possibility of completing a reading at the click of a button. Nevertheless, in order for it to work, one has to know what they are searching for. This creates a problem in that it operates within horse blinders. The search engine will provide you with the results relating to your search directly, but it might not offer other perspectives; or your results will be dependent on popularity. Stephen Ramsay points out in his article “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books” that
“The problem is that that much information probably exceeds our ability to create reliable guides to it. It is one thing to worry that your canon is not sufficiently inclusive, or broad, or representative. It is another thing when your canon has no better chance of being these things than a random selection.” (113).
As it stands right now, close reading and distant reading are most useful when they are used together. Distant reading can get you in range quicker and offer cliff notes for your topic, but one still needs to do a close reading if the true meaning is to be understood.

What Do We Do: Distantly Read a million books or Closely Read a hundred?

“Close Reading,” as I would envision, would be a dissected analysis of a particular work; this particular work may be poetry, a scientific dissertation, or even an illustration. For example, for many years it has been debated what the song “And Your Bird Can Sing” is really about on the Beatles’ 1966 record, Revolver (debatably one of the greatest records of all time, which is besides the point). Is it John Lennon’s musical response to Mick Jagger and his relationship with Marianne Faithfull? A song written simply because the band was stoned with the acclaimed Bob Dylan? No one knows, but still we take the time to analyze their cryptic ballads. Unlike the Beatles, I highly doubt William Shakespeare was writing under the influence of whimsical, eclectic drugs, but I do believe he did not intend for his poetry to be one-dimensional. Closing reading allows you to become an expert and rather than merely taking one message away from that particular work, you may recognize underlying messages that otherwise would be unacknowledged.

Unlike close reading, “Distant Reading,” by definition, would be a much used method by college students that believe the pressures of procrastination brings about the best work (this is false). To defend methods of distant reading, it widens your canon of information. You may not be an expert, like peers who have decided to close read Shakespeare’s sonnets, but you have a general understanding of differences between the sonnets of William Shakespeare, the blank verse poems of Lord Alfred Tennyson, and the lyric structure of John Keats. Similarly, they are all beautiful displays of language, but with distant reading, one may also learn to appreciate the history and the reasoning behind each poets work. Distant reading is commonly associated to “skimming,” an evil word that filters out what isn’t important. Believe it or not, all language is important: distant reading just allows individuals to develop a broader understanding for a particular subject matter.

In my personal opinion, close reading is preferred when evaluating a work(s), but again, distant reading is extremely helpful when time is of the essence. Both methods of reading have their drawbacks, with close reading resembling more a ‘search’ approach and distant reading having a ‘browse’ approach. In Stephen Ramsay’s “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or What You Do with a Million Books,” he speaks about looking for books within a bookstore. In a case of distant reading, poetry for example, I would aimlessly wander to the Barnes & Noble wall titled “Poetry.” After discovering such an abundance of literature, I may close a type of poetry I want to learn more about. I have the opportunity to narrow and widen my search as I please. In the end of trolling through the poetry section after consuming three cups of dark roast coffee; I will generally understand poetry as a whole (the differing structures, what a meter is, etc.). Yes, I will sacrifice the small details of why a poem is so legendary. William Shakespeare was known to hint to his other works within his plays, which brought much delight to loyal Shakespearean fans. As a distant reader, I may not understand such clever hints. Then again as a close reader I can divulge in the clever writing of Mister William Shakespeare, but I may miss out of the adventure of Dante and Virgil in the depths of Hell? We are faced with the decision of trying to distantly read a million books, or to closely read one hundred.

Close reading vs. Distant reading

When I hear the words “close reading”, I instantly think of paying close attention to the details of the text. It was not until I read the required reading for this week that I found out exactly how detailed and time consuming it was. The Shakespeare’s sonnet is made up with certain rules, like: not surpassing 14 lines, identifying a problem, as well as, a solution, and having a rhythm or rhyme. To fully understand what a “close reading” is, one must point out it’s benefits and it’s drawbacks. Benefits of close reading are: fine-toothed editing, disciplinary reading, great detail, and thought provoking. When I use close reading, I find that one must completely engulf themselves in the text to fully understand the meaning that the author intended. In doing this, it brings life and breath to the text. I have come to the conclusion that there are more benefits than drawbacks to close reading due to the fact that the text is dissected in a beautiful way and it is fully appreciated. The only two drawbacks of close reading that I can think of are: one, there are too many facets so that the reader may feel lost or overwhelmed by the text. The second drawback is the incapability of dissecting the text due to misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the words used. I feel like it does take time, patience and practice to fully understand the material, and some people do not have the skill or diligence to complete the task.

On the other side of the spectrum, “distant reading”, in my mind, is large masses of text material that is read by merely skimming over it. In this form of reading, the information that the author is trying to portray may not be fully understood. The benefits of “distant reading” are: mass amounts of material that can be covered in a short amount of time. This enables the reader the accessibility of all kinds of information. The drawbacks of “distant reading” are: an individual cannot fully understand nor appreciate the work of the author or the information that is shared.

Personally, I would choose “close reading” over “distant reading” mainly because I can put myself in the shoes of the writer and enjoy the material like the author may have. Even though it takes a longer period of time to go through the text word for word, it is rewording in the end.