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.

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