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Article

Reading  

Stephen Watt

“Reading” is one of the most provocative terms in literary theory, in part because it connotes both an activity and a product: on the one hand, an effort to comprehend a text or object of knowledge, and on the other, a more formal response. Both senses of the term originate in the premise that literary and other cultural texts—including performances, scripted or not—require a more deliberative parsing than weather reports and recipes, or sentences like “rain is expected today” and “add one cup of flour.” At the same time, reading serves as an explanatory trope across various sites of 21st-century culture; in a tennis match, players “read” the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and strategize accordingly; a cab driver “reads” a GPS when plotting an efficient route to convey a passenger. But an engagement with literary and cultural texts is a different matter. In its former sense as a set of protocols or procedures, reading resides at the center of disciplinary debates as newly formed schools, theories, or methods rise to challenge dominant notions of understanding literature, film, painting, and other forms. Frequently, these debates focus on tensions between binary oppositions (real or presumed): casual versus professional reading (or fast vs. slow), surface reading versus symptomatic reading, close reading versus distant reading, and others. Like the term “reading,” readers are variously described as “informed,” “ideal,” “implied,” and more. In some theoretical formulations, they are anticipated by texts; in others, readers produce or complete them by filling lacunae or conducting other tasks. Complicating matters further, reading also exists in close proximity to several other terms with which it is often associated: interpretation, criticism, and critique. Issues of “textuality” introduce yet another factor in disagreements about the priorities of critical reading, as notions of a relatively autonomous or closed work or object have been supplanted by a focus on both historical context and a work’s “intertextuality,” or its inevitable relationship to, even quotation of, other texts. In the latter sense of a reading as an intellectual or scholarly product, more variables inform definitions. Every reading of a text, as Paul Ricouer describes, “takes place within a community, a tradition, or a living current of thought.” The term “reading” is complicated not only because of the thing studied but also because of both the historically grounded human subject undertaking the activity and the disciplinary expectations shaping and delimiting the interpretations they produce. And, in the 21st century, technologies and practices have emerged to revise these conversations, including machine learning, computational modeling, and digital textuality.

Article

Close Reading  

Mark Byron

Close reading describes a set of procedures and methods that distinguishes the scholarly apprehension of textual material from the more prosaic reading practices of everyday life. Its origins and ancestry are rooted in the exegetical traditions of sacred texts (principally from the Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Islamic traditions) as well as the philological strategies applied to classical works such as the Homeric epics in the Greco-Roman tradition, or the Chinese 詩經 (Shijing) or Classic of Poetry. Cognate traditions of exegesis and commentary formed around Roman law and the canon law of the Christian Church, and they also find expression in the long tradition of Chinese historical commentaries and exegeses on the Five Classics and Four Books. As these practices developed in the West, they were adapted to medieval and early modern literary texts from which the early manifestations of modern secular literary analysis came into being in European and American universities. Close reading comprises the methodologies at the center of literary scholarship as it developed in the modern academy over the past one hundred years or so, and has come to define a central set of practices that dominated scholarly work in English departments until the turn to literary and critical theory in the late 1960s. This article provides an overview of these dominant forms of close reading in the modern Western academy. The focus rests upon close reading practices and their codification in English departments, although reference is made to non-Western reading practices and philological traditions, as well as to significant nonanglophone alternatives to the common understanding of literary close reading.

Article

Digital Humanities  

Simon Burrows and Michael Falk

The article offers a definition, overview, and assessment of the current state of digital humanities, particularly with regard to its actual and potential contribution to literary studies. It outlines the history of humanities computing and digital humanities, its evolution as a discipline, including its institutional development and outstanding challenges it faces. It also considers some of the most cogent critiques digital humanities has faced, particularly from North American-based literary scholars, some of whom have suggested it represents a threat to centuries-old traditions of humanistic inquiry and particularly to literary scholarship based on the tradition of close reading. The article shows instead that digital humanities approaches gainfully employed offer powerful new means of illuminating both context and content of texts, to assist with both close and distant readings, offering a supplement rather than a replacement for traditional means of literary inquiry. The digital techniques it discusses include stylometry, topic modeling, literary mapping, historical bibliometrics, corpus linguistic techniques, and sequence alignment, as well as some of the contributions that they have made. Further, the article explains how many key aspirations of digital humanities scholarship, including interoperability and linked open data, have yet to be realized, and it considers some of the projects that are currently making this possible and the challenges that they face. The article concludes on a slightly cautionary note: What are the implications of the digital humanities for literary study? It is too early to tell.