Distant Reading

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. Visit 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. Requires creating a free account.

Databases and Datasets

Build Your Own Project: Campus Resources

Close Reading

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

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.