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Editors’ Choice: Close vs Distant Readings #rcdh14

….“Close reading” is not a method per se. Rather, it’s an attitude, I think, where “close” actually means “closely,” implying an extra degree of care, attention to detail, expertise, etc. When we ask someone “to pay close attention” to something, we’re not asking them to invade our personal space; we use it as an intensifier, like the word “critical” in the phrase critical thinking. There’s a metaphorical sense where we might imagine scholars moving their faces/eyes very close to the text, but that physical proximity is more metaphor than necessity.

The problem, then, comes from the fact that “closeness” can mean both physically near and carefully attentive. When we speak of distant reading, even though there’s a similar connotation in terms of attention (“You seem really distant tonight…”), that is not really what Moretti and others have in mind. Distant reading is not sloppy or inattentive so much as it is an inversion or distribution of attention—instead of focusing attention on a single passage or text or author, the distant reader looks for specific features or patterns across a broad range of texts. The connotation of distance makes sense to us in terms of zooming in and out with a camera lens, taking a metaphorical step back from the individual text(s), etc., but I think this misleads us (a bit) to think that distant reading is just a matter of tuning the “proximity dial” on our reading processes.

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This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief Joan Fragaszy Troyano based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: Ester Rincon Calero, James O'Sullivan, Dana Bublitz, Beth Secrist, Amy Williams, Dale Russell, Aisha Clarke, Silvia Stoyanova, Kimberly Himmer, Sarah Canfield Fuller, Andrew Hyde, Laurie Allen, and Alexander Czmiel.