X-Ray Vision and Distant Reading

I used to be stubbornly resistant to the idea of reading books on screen, for all of the obvious (though perhaps frivolous) reasons: I like the feel of a book in my hands—solid, material; I treat my books roughly and like how their physical shape reflects my reading experience; I like the satisfaction of actually feeling how many pages I’ve read and how many I have to go; I even usually like the smell of a book. But after just one semester of grad school, dragging my various and numerous books to, from and across campus, it became clear to me that I might actually find e-books more useful in an academic context for their sheer convenience (weight, transportability, storage, etc.).

So about five months ago, I got an iPad mini and hopped on board the Kindle train—and I really haven’t looked back. In addition to my initial reasons, I have found new causes to love e-books: their organized and searchable system for storing highlighting and annotations; the searchability of the text itself; the easy, deft movement between text and endnotes; the built-in dictionary and even Google/Wikipedia searches. I found my reading experiences to be fundamentally altered by these conveniences, but rather than flattening them out (as I might once have argued they would), I found that these affordances of the e-book make my reading experiences much, much richer than they would have otherwise been. The likelihood of my looking up a word of whose meaning I was unsure, of looking up a geographical location or historical event—I’m somewhat ashamed to say it was much slimmer when I had a print book in my hands and my computer was across the room. While you might expect these quick movements within an e-book (between internal and external text) to be distracting, I find them much less disruptive than hauling out my computer to look something up every time I want more information.

For these reasons, I’ve come to trust and rely on my Kindle app. That is, until this weekend, when I was reading my Kindle version of Tana French’s brilliant 2007 Irish murder mystery In the Woods for Dr. Siobhan Carroll’s course on the Transatlantic Gothic. I was only about a quarter of the way through the book when I discovered, quite by accident, a Kindle feature I’d never encountered before called “X-Ray.” For some reason or another, I had accidentally highlighted a character’s name—and what popped up looked something like this:

XRay Kindle Screenshot

Notice the blue and white bar at the bottom—which, it became immediately clear, represents the frequency and distribution of the character’s name in the book. Here’s the kicker: to avoid spoilers for others in Transatlantic Gothic (and anyone else who might want to read French’s excellent novel!), I used the main character’s name in the screenshot example above. But what I actually highlighted at that moment was a very minor character’s name. I instantly saw (and subsequently couldn’t un-see) the plot of the novel through that blue and white bar, because the very minor character’s name drops out of the book for almost the entire middle section, and then suddenly reappears in full force about ¾ of the way through the novel. This novel is a whodunnit for god’s sake! Fortunately, it’s also quite a bit more than just a whodunnit, or I suppose the rest wouldn’t have been worth reading. But I utterly loathe having plots ruined for me.

It turns out that X-Ray “lets you explore the ‘bones of a book’” by defining and mapping out not only character names, but various terms as well (such as locations, historical figures, and just about anything else you can find in an encyclopedia). From what I can tell, X-Ray operates through a data-collecting and –analyzing robot, but also through Amazon’s Shelfari, which describes itself as “a community-powered encyclopedia for book lovers.”

What this immediately made me think of was Franco Moretti’s fascinating, brilliant and also (I find) rather disturbing manifesto for “distant reading.” While the original manifesto itself was written in 2000, doesn’t explicitly mention computers or the internet, and was positioned ostensibly as a solution for making meaning of the vast, non-canonical quantities of world literature, it had prescient resonances for what it means to read in a digital age. “Distant reading” is almost precisely the opposite of “close reading”—it assumes that “distance… is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems” (Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature”). In other words, Moretti deals in data. As he put it in his 1998 Atlas of the European Novel, his methodology is straightforward, if not simple: ““you select a textual feature… find the data, put them on paper – and then you look at the map” (13). The shapes and patterns that result from such data, which often cut across multiple texts and authors, become the new text subject to analysis. Here’s an example of what such work might look like, from his 2005 Graphs, Maps, Trees:

Moretti - Protagonists of Parisian novels

Of course, in the digital age these patterns no longer need to be “put on paper,” nor are we limited to analyzing only the data we painstakingly mine for ourselves. In the fourteen years since the publication of his “distant reading” manifesto, Moretti has since been avidly pursuing this unorthodox strain of literary studies, “importing,” as Wikipedia puts it, “not without controversy, quantitative methods from the social sciences into domains that have traditionally belonged to the humanities.” His work at the Stanford Literary Lab reflects his inevitable plunge into the digital, toward a new field they call “computational criticism.” We now have an array of technological tools that can amass data from texts, and even perform pretty sophisticated analyses. Because of the internet we can rely on the collective labor of many individuals to produce this information, as digital spaces like Shelfari demonstrate. The emergence of such spaces makes almost eerily prophetic Moretti’s 2000 claim that “literary history will quickly become very different from what it is now: it will become ‘second hand’: a patchwork of other people’s research, without a single direct textual reading” (“Conjectures”). The data and patterns emerging from collective work on texts between humans and computers—like the bar-maps and definitions I accidentally encountered on X-Ray, much to my chagrin—bear a strong resemblance to Moretti’s practice of “distant reading.” (Though it is interesting to note the somewhat contradictory controlling metaphors of each: zooming out vs. x-ray vision.)

Altogether, I’m not entirely sure how to feel about this digital-age movement toward data in reading and writing. Of course the sense of loss, on one level, is profound. Moretti is fairly indifferent toward such loss, observing that

If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more. (“Conjectures”)

I’m not so indifferent. Like most of us, I suspect, I place a deep value on the individual process of reading a single text. To some extent, the linked external data can enhance that reading experience. But when it moves toward displacing the reading experience, as it very nearly did in my initial encounter with X-Ray, I profoundly resent it. Moretti has done some really cool, interesting work with his methods. But I wonder how far we really want to take distant reading as a real practice. And why, after all, do programs like X-Ray exist? What do we stand to gain, as individual readers and collectively, from such information?

8 thoughts on “X-Ray Vision and Distant Reading”

  1. What a thoughtful post, Kiley! Thank you for sharing those visuals (phew–glad I read _In the Woods_ in paperback form!) and bringing in Moretti.

    I think I have found an odd balance, at least for now, with reading ebooks and paper books. My favorite way to read is still on paper. But I LOVE going back through a searchable text for writing papers. Right now, for my gothic paper on Harriet Jacob’s _Incidents_ I’m using the Docsouth online version, which is searchable. It doesn’t do fancy interpretations for me, but when I want to know how many times Jacobs uses the word “calculate” it sure it a cinch to find out and analyze! So I guess I’d say that the things we lose by reading in digital forms, with all the links and trappings and excesses of supplemental material, can be put to use when we’re ready for them. I hold them at bay for my first reading experience for some of the reasons you indicate.

    This practice suits me for now, although I imagine it will be harder going forward, and it doesn’t help rectify the original problem you had when you switched over to reading on the iPad. I’m still hauling books around.

    1. Kiley and Janel,

      I am so sorry that happened to you, Kiley! I’m pretty sure I know which minor character you meant, and, if so, highlighting that name would totally have ruined the book. I can’t stand spoilers for works like French’s.

      I also had a similar experience to you making the switch over to ebooks. I was very resistant at first, but now I almost prefer them over the regular ones. Like Janel, I think having a searchable text makes writing about a book a thousand times easier. Not only do I find the passages I want faster, but I also frequently find related passages that I had somehow missed during my regular reading/annotating. I also love the immediacy of ebooks. If I hear about a book that I want to read, BOOM, it’s there, in like 5 seconds. And I get to accumulate all the books I want without feeling the dread of having to move them all in a couple months.

      I haven’t heard of X-Ray before, but it reminds me of another feature of the kindle that I find obnoxious and somewhat spoilery (although to a much lesser extent). With certain books, “popular highlights” come up. I’m sure you’ve seen these, but, if not, they’re basically passages that other people reading the text found important and highlighted (hence the name). In novels these highlights cane be annoying because they sometimes reveal too much about the plot, but in other texts (like many of the ones we read for this class), these highlights bother me because they seem to be telling me what I should think is important. And I buy into it. “Well, 67 other people thought this passage is important, so it’s GOT to be, right?” It makes me feel like I’m not as in control of my own reading experience as I would like to be. As if the format of the text is telling me how I should be interacting with the book.

      But there’s probably a way to turn it off that I just haven’t figured out yet.

  2. Heather and Janel,

    I am totally with you about loving the searchability of ebooks. And it’s not *just* for finding evidence for an argument you’ve already worked out. When I was (re)reading _The Turn of the Screw_ for Gothic, and I realized at a certain point that I had seen a number of references to “the trace,” I was able to find all of the passages that used it and figure out what they had in common as a way of *getting* to an argument. So incredibly useful.

    Heather, I encountered that same Kindle problem with the “popular passages” and immediately turned the feature off. I agree– it totally impacts your autonomy as a reader to decide what is and isn’t important. Protip: You have to go to your library, click on “Settings” (bottom righthand corner), click on “Other” (very bottom of options) and then turn off the “Popular Highlights” feature. Hope that helps! 🙂

    Anyway, ebooks: I guess the moral of the story is that you have to get good at turning off the features that don’t add value!

    Thanks for your responses– I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who struggles with this strange interconnectedness of our readings with other data.


  3. Kiley,

    A fun post. I’m actually very fond of X-Ray, since I seem to have a weak memory for minor characters (and sometimes major ones) in long and involved novels. It helps me check back on who they are.

    But, obviously, you don’t want the tool to replace r/t augment the experience of reading. Spoiler alert!

    I don’t know Moretti. He sounds like kind of a jejune intellectual provocateur. But, then, that statement is not based on a direct, textual reading.


  4. Haha, Joe– I see what you did there! I probably didn’t do Moretti justice in this post. He really does make some interesting and compelling arguments, particularly about the cultural work of the novel in its many iterations. And you’ve got to admire the ambitiousness of the scope of his projects. But ultimately for me, it’s just one methodology, not a new ideology, for literary criticism.

    1. I pretty much built my two first years in the program on Moretti’s _Signs Taken For Wonders_, which unsurprisingly, I’ve had checked out of the library for almost 2.5 years (his work on detective fiction is hands-down wonderful). I kind of lost track of him when it came to his work with quantitative data (turning theory into sociology is not my favorite thing), though I love the concept of distant reading inasmuch as it allows us to look at big patterns shared by bodies of text while acknowledging and *moving past* the (postcolonial, for me) obsession with losing or erasing something. So thanks for posting that!

      Also, sorry for being THAT GUY in Gothic that spoiled things even further. (Also, sorry Heather! for the same reason).

  5. Kiley
    Thank you for introducing a new fascinating feature of Kindle! I Think we are moving from the ability of reading for personal pleasure towards the necessity of reading for critical pleasure (I’d like to see it as a pleasure.) Now we take pleasure in reading academically and spoilers are not a big deal. As a big fan of cover-to-cover reading who still spends a lot of time seeing movies from the first to the last shot, I don’t really mind jumping into the last chapter of a novel , or watching the director’s commentary on the most essential sequence. That means I am changing! I think we are all training our minds to enjoy something more than the linear plot and this new habit of mind, fortunately or unfortunately, seems to be irreversible.

  6. Kiley,

    I remember studying the Charles Booth Online archive, which posts digital versions of his notebooks and income maps (Booth was a Victorian who gathered meticulous data on the working people of London). One of the maps is of London in 2000 (http://booth.lse.ac.uk/cgi-bin/do.pl?sub=view_booth_and_barth&args=531000,180400,6,large,5).

    Presumably, one can interpose a Victorian map of London over the 2000 map to see where they live now? I remember wondering how useful this tool actually is, since it’s clumsy, doesn’t work well, and doesn’t really add anything to the experience of understanding Booth’s mission.

    There were already some thoughtful responses to your questions here, but there is, I think, a limit to the effectiveness of digital reading (whether reading images or text) when the purpose of the manipulation is not considered. If the purpose is merely “hey, this is cool,” then we probably don’t need it. If the purpose is “I can never remember all of the characters in a novel and need a reminder” then some people do probably need it.

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