Tag Archives: digital reading

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?

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Reading and Writing and Everything…Complicated in a Digital Environment

In our first discussion of Kathleen Fitzgerald’s Planned Obsolescence, Janel and I chatted briefly about its length – with me remarking that it’s just under two hundred pages, and Janel lamenting that her Kindle version gives her no page numbers. Also having the Kindle text, I was surprised (and relieved) that the version I had on my PC did indeed have page numbers – “Hallelujah” just might have rung out in my mind. Funnily enough, Kindle’s “locations” do little to locate me in a text. Even with the percentages and progress bars, clicking the next page icon (as indebted to codex construction as it is) is just not the same as the physical feel of a book when you reach the halfway point and when there are more pages in your left hand than right.

That being said, most of my reading is digital. I’m either scrolling or, if I’m on my Tumblr dash, hitting “J” to move down my infinite scrolling dash post by post. Some posts are simply too long to scroll all the way through – and I can always hit “K” if I want to move up to the start of a post that I decide I do want to read after all.

In the same fashion, as I compose this post (in Word), I have changed the font to Times New Roman and the font size to 12, even though I know this will change the instant I move the writing to WordPress. I am simultaneously both mentally chained to more traditional understandings of text and all too willing to abandon them once I open a browser. I’m also desperately trying to figure out how to work this into the zombie metaphor and struggling. (…Something about how each survivor base tries desperately to recreate pre-zombie life within those walls, only to instantly adapt to new realities when unlocking a chained up fence and blasting a way through a zombie horde…like you do).

Fitzgerald writes, “Developers of new textual technologies and publishing systems must recognize that, on the one hand, simply publishing texts online, finding ways to reproduce the structures of the book in digital form, is insufficient, because the network cannot, and should not, replicate the codex; and that on the other hand, simply moving toward a more internally networked form of publishing will likewise not revolutionize the circulation of texts, as the emphasis remains on the individual text, the individual author, the individual mind” (107).

Quick aside here, I cannot begin to express my frustration that I can’t copy/paste from a Kindle text and instead had to handwrite this quotation (it’s just one sentence that’s length only makes itself truly known when writing down each word), and then retype it into Word. I feel like technology has failed me.

Talk about older writing technologies...
Talk about older writing technologies…

But to return to the quotation. The questions of how the digital context could, and should, change the construction of reading and writing (and publishing) are of interest to me mainly as I continue to consider how I will compose a digital essay on Tumblr. It’s a public site, and I will reblog from other users invested (hopefully) in what I have to say. There will be some element of response in the piece (but I wonder how soon I will start posting what I already will, to a certain extent, have planned and written in Word). It’s a blog, so it has a reverse chronology. To what extent will I move around posts before the final deadline? And, as a blog, it is unfinished to the vast majority of my audience (again, presuming the audience ends up extending beyond everyone here – not to say you all aren’t the best audience a gal could wish for). There is some level of obligation (real or imagined) an author has to a blog’s readership that is unlike a printed text, or even an online text like Prezi, where the product is what appears.

Yet, when looking at all of these questions, even if I’m moving beyond a piece limited to codex form, I am still tethered to individualism. Everything is hooked to what “I” want to do, or what I think is best to do, in the context of this course and my scholarly project. I (there it is again) am unsure at this point to what degree I should move beyond this, admittedly imagined, construction of individual authorship, and experiment more broadly with Tumblr‘s system of reblogging, submission, and general intertextuality across mediums. But who knows – perhaps I say this safely from my base camp, and once I’m loose among the hordes on Tumblr I will fully embrace this collaborative digital environment.*

 

*I don’t think bloggers are zombies…but I had to call back the metaphor. Zombies are cool. The asterisk and italics on Janel’s post are also cool. 

Why Did I Click That? Time as Investment in Digital Reading

In the context of discussing how notions of authorship have morphed in the digital age, Dennis Baron notes: “Any scribbler with a computer, a Wi-Fi card, and a place to sit at Starbucks has immediate access to the universe of plugged-in readers, many of them eager to devour all manner of digital text they would never touch in printed form” (Loc 2389*). While Baron cites this as evidence that opportunities to write for an audience have exploded through the affordances of the web, I find the latter portion of the comment suggestive for thinking about how conceptions of readership have changed in new media.

The idea that we are willing to read in pixels what we would never read on paper caught my notice because, somewhat embarrassingly, it’s quite true to my own habits as an internet user. Though painful to admit, when I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed on my iPhone, I’ll find myself clicking on stupid links from Buzzfeed or Upworthy. The content is almost never satisfying—most of the time, it barely scrapes the surface of “entertaining”— and one would think I’d learn from those mistakes. Moreover, I would feel like an idiot browsing through a whole magazine’s worth of “The Top 10 Best Things About Your Thirties.” But I think I continue to read this content online because there’s something about the stakes of the commitment that feels lower when reading online—it doesn’t feel like an investment in the way that it does to pick up a newspaper, magazine or book. (And, of course, because there’s an element of self-deception involved: this post might actually be good!)

I can't imagine picking up a magazine with this headline...
I can’t imagine picking up a magazine with this headline…

Part of this is an issue of literal monetary investment, since there is simply much more free reading material to be found online than there is in print. But when so much of the content is free, as it is on the internet, it seems that we move from thinking of reading text as an investment of money, to thinking of it as an investment of time. On my computer, it is easy and quick for me to click 15 links in a row, lining up a series of tabs in my browser of reading material. I’ll scan the opening lines of each to determine my level of interest, and the second I decide it’s not worth my time, I simply click that little “x” in the top righthand corner of the tab, and the material literally vanishes. No lugging the magazines or books back to the shelf, and if I have turned on the “private browsing” setting, no record of my ever having looked at “10 Ways To Make Over a Cardigan.” The sheer immateriality of the medium makes texts incredibly easy to access and subsequently to discard. As Baron notes in his discussion of “teknophobes” and neo-Luddites, critics of the computer have argued that the increased speed afforded by new technologies makes writing “too easy,” “becom[ing] so effortless that writers don’t bother to think about their words” (Loc 1839). Similar arguments disparage how we read now for the web. Internet readers are accused of being “A.D.D.,” spending too little time with each text, and degrading the quality of both reading and writing from a better, earlier age—when people spent time with texts.

Yikes, that's embarrassing.
Yikes, that’s embarrassing.

Yet when we consider the long history of evolving writing technologies as laid out by Baron, it seems to me that this is not actually some sudden and unprecedented change in the way we read, but is in fact a shift that has been in progress for quite a long time. Each innovation in writing technology—from clay tablets, to quill and parchment, to the Gutenberg printing press, to the web, to name a few— has made the production and dissemination of texts cheaper. As a result of increasing affordability, texts become of course more accessible, but also more discardable. Prior to the print revolution, when books were rare because the cost of production and labor investment was so high, it is easy to imagine that the few texts to which any person had access would be read again and again. As the printing press took hold, and text became cheaper and more widely available, people likely read more texts, perhaps reading a new book or magazine instead of re-reading an old one. In the internet age, when there are so many texts available at no cost, it’s hardly surprising that we might spend less time with each text on average.

Even so, I also think it’s a bit of a logical leap to assume that because we spend less time on most of what we read, that we spend less time on every piece of digital reading. Though I may spend 30 seconds or so on the stuff I’d “never touch in print,” there’s also a good deal of web content out there that is designed to hold our attention, and I often find myself reading articles or essays to the very last line. And above all, I’d argue that the world is still full of curious, thoughtful humans—we can enjoy the immateriality and ephemerality of some texts, while maintaining a desire to think through complexities in sustained ways. The web gives us access to so many texts that for me, much of the pleasure is in casting a wide net and sifting through the content—both to enjoy the little textual blips on my radar before I close the tab, and to find something worth reading to the end.

*NOTE: Because I have the Kindle version of A Better Pencil, I unfortunately can’t share page numbers, so I’ve given the “location” number instead. Supposedly page numbers are now available for some eBooks, but apparently this isn’t one of them. Although I love that I don’t have to tote around all of my books this semester, I’m finding that the inability to reference page numbers is one major failing of using eBooks in an academic context.