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:
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:
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?