Distant Reading

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Distant reading is a term invented by Franco Moretti, the Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University. Moretti is also the director of the Stanford Literary Lab. He describes this concept in his essay “Conjectures on World Literature” in The New Left Review in 2000. He writes:

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. Still ambitious, and actually even more so than before (world literature!); but the ambition is now directly proportional to the distance from the text: the more ambitious the project, the greater must the distance be.

Moretti presents distant reading as a new methodological option for students of literature. He proposes moving beyond traditional close reading to embrace a much larger corpus of texts on a much less detailed level. Obviously, this suggestion is highly controversial, especially in the context of the very conservative academe. At the same time, the practice presents new possibilities and avenues of study, and can expand our understanding of how texts interact, and the general context in which they exist.

We can also handle the information we glean from the texts differently. Moretti often produces different types of data visualizations. The image below is a graph from Moretti’s work “Graphs, Maps, and Trees” (2003).

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I have used Moretti’s concept of distant reading to advise my own digital humanities work in two projects I have done: “A Postcolonial ‘Distant Reading’ of Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Anglophone Texts” and “A Distant Reading of Empire.

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