Topic 5: Distant Reading

When you read a novel or poem, how do you analyze it? What kind of information do you look for, and how do you decide what it means? What can a British novel written in 1855 tell you about the society and people’s lives back then? What can it tell you about what’s being written today?  

For most students and teachers, understanding literature involves close reading. Close reading is done by carefully reading and reflecting on a piece of literature, be it a poem, novel, or essay. You might pay special attention to characterization, to the pace of the plot, or to the symbolism and imagery found throughout a work. This has traditionally led to many interesting and complex theories about literature, but what if there is another way?  

Franco Moretti pioneered a new practice called distant reading, which is the opposite of close reading. Instead of carefully reading and analyzing a single work (or a group of works), distant reading takes thousands of pieces of literature and feeds them into a computer for analysis. Distant reading attempts to uncover the patterns and unspoken rules behind literature from a very technical perspective. Where close reading relies on subjective analysis of what a single piece of literature means, distant reading compiles objective data about many, many works. 

Reading & Annotation

What is Distant Reading?

A Genealogy of Distant Reading

Distant Reading and Recent Intellectual History


Big Data + Old History

Paul Schacht on Digital Humanities and Distant Reading


Voyant Tools is a web-based reading and analysis environment for digital texts. Use Voyant to analyze a demo corpora from Alan Liu’s Data Collections and Datasets or a collection/dataset of your choice. After you have selected your corpus and uploaded it into Voyant, use About- Voyant Tools Help to help you interpret the resulting visualizations. Share your visualizations via iframe and/or the Voyant export function at in a post at your website and discuss how you draw meaning from specific visualizations. What do they tell you about your corpus? Could you have arrived at that interpretation via close-reading, why or why not?