Week sixteen: ‘Not reading’ a novel

We will be continuing our exploration of distance reading; this week we will be focusing this broad methodology by applying the specific method of text analysis. Please read Geoffrey Rockwell, What is Text Analysis?

We’ll be exploring a tool called Voyant Cirrus First, some tips (courtesy Paul Fyfe of Florida State University. Fyfe describes his assignment in “How Not to Read a Victorian Novel,” Journal of Victorian Culture 16, no. 1 (April 2011):

English classes more typically emphasize close reading than “not reading.” This exercise will be new to many of you. So will the technology and the interfaces. The paper requires thinking about texts in a very different way than you might be used to. There may be dead ends; on the other hand, there will be no wrong answers. This preludes three important points:

  • Experiment. This assignment is as much about testing the methods as it is learning about the text. The goal here is not to reconstruct a missing story, but to “read” the novel in a fundamentally different way, and to think about the implications of doing so.
  • Ask for help. Please don’t struggle with the technology, or tear hair in confusion about the assignment. Let me know if you have questions or concerns, if you run into problems, if you’d like to go over this, or discuss how to talk about your results.
  • Use frustration creatively. This is perhaps the hardest and most essential trick. If you hit a dead end, feel frustrated, or get null results, how can you use that to learn? In other words, what might be the values of that frustration or failure in thinking about your critical approach? Try to take any moment of frustration as instead an opportunity to reflect on the kinds of questions you are asking and how you might change them.


Let’s get started: election manifestos

To get the hang of this approach and the tool we’ll start off with a set of non-literary texts: the election manifestos of the four main parties from the 2015 General Election. Plain text files are available here. Choose one and upload the file into Voyant. Click on a word within the word cloud to open up the full range of analyser windows. Now have play! Tips:

  • In the full analyser, above the word cloud window, you’ll see a cog icon (‘Options’). Click on that to access the ‘Stop word’ list: from the drop-down menu select ‘English’ and ‘OK’.  Note what happens now to your word cloud?
  • Check out the guidance and tutorials here http://docs.voyant-tools.org/ or alumnus Ben Franks’ post here.

Some questions to consider:

  1. What keywords did you pursue and why?
  2. What kinds of words predominated? What about unusual words?
  3. The big question here: can this kind of reading help you understand anything about something you’ve never read?
  4. What still don’t you know after experimenting with this tools? In other words, what additional information might you need to gain insights?
  5. What insights, if any, does this tools provide?


Now let’s try this on a novel

You must choose something you’ve never read before. You must choose a novel that you can find the entire text for online, likely on Project Gutenberg. Here are a few possibilities:

Daniel Defoe, The Life, Adventures and Piracies of Captain Singleton

Henry Fielding, Tom Jones

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto

Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote

Frances Burney, Evelina

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho

William Godwin, Caleb Williams

Jane Austen, Emma

Download the “plain text” (.txt) version of each novel to your computer. Open that text file in a plain text editor and “clean it up” by deleting all of the text at the front and back of the file that isn’t the text itself. You want the file to include only the words of the novel itself, not any of the legal language or the metadata. Save each the file of each novel as a separate plain text (.txt) file: make sure you give it a clear file name so that it is easy to retrieve in the session, and so that it is recognisable in the Voyant viewer (you might want to create a folder especially for these texts).

Now that you’ve not read the entire novel, go back and actually read its first chapter (avoid any preface):

  1. Did the textual analyses you performed prepare you to understand the themes, character, setting, or any other aspects of this first chapter?
  2. Are there ideas you expected to encounter based on your textual analysis, but didn’t?
  3. Were there ideas in the first chapter that seem entirely unrelated to the analyses you performed beforehand?
  4. Has reading the first chapter made you want to go back and enact your analyses in different ways? If so, how?