In Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, Franco Moretti makes the case for distant reading in literary studies. As someone who hasn’t taken a class on literature since high school, there was a lot that was unfamiliar to me, but I tried to think about how the book can apply to digital history.
Moretti argues that the canon that literary scholars work from is “a minimal fraction of the literary field,” distorting understandings of literature (3-4). Initially, I didn’t think of this a criticism that could be applied to the historical field because most historians seek out untouched or underutilized primary sources, rather than scrutinizing the same “canon” of documents. But Moretti goes on to argue that close reading is an inadequate method because “a field this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases, because it isn’t a sum of individual cases: it’s a collective system, that should be grasped as such, as a whole” (4). While I don’t think distant reading can truly capture the “whole” in most cases, this argument for the value of distant reading does make sense to me. I don’t see distant reading as a replacement for close reading, but used in conjunction, I can see how it can draw attention to things you otherwise might have missed.
In class, we also discussed how close reading can enable you to see a story of class privilege in the letter from Henry Stimson to President Truman (about the need to reveal a secret project: the atomic bomb). Stimson, an Ivy League graduate, seems to talk down to Truman, who did not attend college. We considered the use of distant reading as a way to investigate this possibility and provide further support. As useful as this sounds, I have to admit I’m a little wary of using distant reading to support an idea developed from close reading. Perhaps it’s just my limited knowledge, but it seems that historians run the risk of crafting a methodology that will just confirm their beliefs. How do you construct models of distant reading that are resistant to confirmation bias?
During class, we also spent time using Google Books. I was unaware of the advanced search options (still very much wondering why they try to hide this feature), and I can see how this will be useful in future researh. Playing around with the Ngram Viewer is definitely more exciting than advanced search, but I have yet to come up with a search that does anything but confirm my suspicions. Maybe trying to find useful pairings isn’t the way to go; maybe in this case it’s best to be spontaneous and see what happens. Overall, I think I need to learn a lot more about distant reading before passing judgment.