About Distant Reading
"Distant reading" has a specific meaning (coined by Franco Moretti), but can also generally refer to the use of computational methods to analyze literary texts. To learn more, start with Debates in the Digital Humanities, or explore this HOLLIS search for scholarly guides to the Digital Humanities and this MLA search for "distant reading" and related terms.
Ngram Viewers: Chart word usage over time
Beware: ngram counts are only as relevant or interesting as the corpus of texts they're measuring. Is the spike or drop you're observing attributable to a change in how language is used, or just material circumstances that make something likely to be included or excluded from your corpus? Think about the long-term durability of various kinds of paper, library collection policies, wartime effects on publishing, etc.
- Google Ngram: choose a sample of the Google Books corpus, including the "Google million." Search up to 5 consecutive words. See the Culturomics page on Google's ngram for a quick intro, and About Google Ngram for details and advanced features.
- HathiTrust Bookworm: samples the HathiTrust Digital Library. Unigrams (single words) only. More precise options for specifying type of publication. Select a plot point to see a snapshot of texts with "hits."
- Mediacloud: lots of options for visualizing topics in the news.
Databases and Datasets
- HarvardKey-restricted: the library licenses access to many kinds of databases that provide data, searchable full-text corpora, and other kinds of tools.
- Free to access: the web abounds in open-access portals that encourage you to explore texts on a macro scale. Some big ones include the Digital Public Library of America, HathiTrust and its HathiTrust Research Center, Europeana, and the Internet Archive. There are many, many more.
- Specialized datasets, such as the ECCO corpus, may be available by request
- For details and specific recommendations, ask me!
- For additional leads and ideas, see library research guides that mention data
Build Your Own Project: Campus Resources
About Close Reading
Close reading is an activity that keeps you focused on and within a text—appraising individual words, shapes of thought, rhetorical devices, patterns of description and characterization, and so forth, in order to understand the text's artistic achievement. For more on the history and practice, see the JHU Guide's article on Practical Criticism or this HOLLIS search for "close reading" and literary criticism.
Trace Word Meanings over Time
- The Oxford English Dictionary (OED): widely accepted as the most complete record of the English language ever assembled. Each entry includes a pronunciation key and etymology (in Old or Middle English, for example), identifies a word's earliest known use, and lists the word's changing meanings (including those now obsolete). Quotations from literary texts and other historical records illustrate different usages over time. The OED has a fascinating history of its own.
Trace Occurrences of a Word across Texts
- Concordances: These are published, alphabetized lists of individual words used in a single text (e.g.Thoreau's Walden ) or larger oeuvre (e.g. Ezra Pound's Cantos or Milton's English prose). In HOLLIS, add "concordances" to the author's name, e.g. concordances AND "Keats, John". Many concordances are now published online instead: examples include the Victorian Literary Studies Archive Hyper-Concordance, the Open Source Shakespeare Concordance, and the Online Concordance to Wallace Stevens' Poetry.
- Searchable full-text collections: When a concordance isn't available, there may be digital editions of the literary text(s) you're studying. For English and American authors, try LION (Literature Online): it contains a library of 350,000 texts from the 8th century through the 20th. For more, see our guide to Finding Full Text Books Online.
- Variorum editions: Some texts exist in multiple versions. The differences between these versions, from the removal or addition of whole passages to subtle changes in punctuation, can make enormous differences in interpretation. A variorum edition collates textual variants and attempts to account for them, in some cases, by including the critical conversations they have engendered. A HOLLIS search for an author's name plus "variorum" or "variants" ("Shakespeare, William" AND (variorum OR variants) will bring up variorum editions as well as literary criticism that focuses specifically on textual variants.
Understand Literary and Rhetorical Terms
These special terms provide literary scholars with a shorthand for describing the formal properties of language, but they can also give you new lenses with which to view texts. The word "chiasmus" is shorter than "repetition of ideas in reverse order"; the concept of chiasmus might make you more alert to the order in which ideas are repeated within a sentence or a paragraph.
- The Reference Works collection in Literature Online is an excellent selection of searchable guides specific to literary studies. Pro tip: you can use the general search box and then filter your results to "Reference."
- Silva Rhetoricae: An award-winning website, maintained at Brigham Young University, that provides overviews of rhetorical practice, definitions of rhetorical figures, and very helpful examples of each.
- Individual guides and dictionaries: a HOLLIS search for dictionaries of poetics and literary terminology is a good way to see what's out there. For a helpful selection, start at call number RR 3005.31 in the Loker Reading Room.