surface reading

Robots Reading Vogue

Robots Reading Vogue is a collaborative project between arts librarian, Lindsay King and digital humanities lab affiliate Peter Leonard through the Yale Digital Humanities Lab. The large data mining project purports to be useful for disciplines from gender studies to computer science. The visual data represents various changes throughout the magazines history ranging from cover art to word co-occurance. Vogue‘s long and rich publication history (over a hundred years, according to the project’s website) provides a wealth of data to be selected and analyzed.

Since its inception, Robots Reading Vogue has worked several different inspiring projects like these awesome student projects!


On the brink of artificial intelligence’s arrival, I pose a question. Will machines read? Will they move past programming, either that which is given to them or that which they construct at their own behest, into the same choices we make as readers? Will they form areas of interest that drive their decision-making as human beings do? Will artificial intelligence not only replicate but also reflect the nuanced workings the human brain? How about the human heart?

I ask these questions before making a stark confession: I have text mined for the purposes of literary research at a personal level. There, it’s done. During a certain hectic three month period, a time of shifting theses and the bottoms falling out of ideas, I used my kindle to search for passages pertaining to my thesis, one involving Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts and a frothing Afghan hound. The terms ‘dog,’ ‘canine,’ even the vague ‘animal’ were systematically pulled from the text and lined up on a separate screen (if you’re thinking ‘big deal,’ I’m thinking ‘run a check on your bookgeek street cred’). Why do I feel as if I cheated, or at best robbed myself of what Gaston Bachelard labels the ‘true reading’ of any novel, the second, third, and fourth passes, when the work’s genius and beauty leap out, when you move past the narrative into the connections and symbols you can’t believe you missed the first time through. Did I cheat? And, if I did cheat, who fell prey to this specific, brand new breed of corruption? More importantly, in the spirit of Michael Witmore’s addressability, what can we learn from this difference between the human reader and the machine pulling the same passages from a text? And, where does the guilt come from and what does it mean to the future of literary research-by-machine?

Reading Literature, Enhancing Vocabulary

In attempts to encourage students to widen their vocabulary, teachers should include such engagement in their literature classroom, not just English composition.

Along with allowing students to engage with a text on a literary level, why not ask them to engage in a more linguistic level as well?

  • As students begin to read an assigned text for a literature class, ask them to highlight, circle, underline, or keep a running list in a notebook of the words that they are unfamiliar with.
    • Is the word used more than once in the novel? Have students compare the ways in which the word is used and in what context in relation to the plot/events/descriptions/characters/etc.
  • Encourage them to use context clues from the text itself to help them form a definition of the word.
  • Next, ask that they look the word up in the dictionary to compare their own definition with the formal definition.
    • How did the author use the word in their work?

Not only will the activity enhance their vocabulary, but it will also allow the students to engage with the text on a more critical and engaging level.

Methods for Materiality: Utilizing Distance Reading

Seeking a more rational literary history, Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees demonstrates the interpretive possibilities made available by distance reading. For Moretti, mapping the development or evolution of genres and bibliographies draws attention to often-ignored non-canonized texts, providing vital context for the one percent of literature that is still actually read or well known. Data trees are an optimum tool for tracing the Darwinian development of literary trends and markets, revealing a network of material and cultural circumstances often overlooked by close-reading practices.

Continue reading “Methods for Materiality: Utilizing Distance Reading”

You’re Reading Too Much Into It

Often, the phrase “you’re reading too much into it” has been used by people to help their friends get past over-thinking a clearly obvious encounter. A simple example could be Lisa waving hello to Tina and receiving no wave back. This awkward encounter could have Lisa jumping to conclusions thinking Tina no longer cares for Lisa as a friend whereas Tina just didn’t see her. Where could this phrase “you’re reading too much into it” have come from? It quite possibly could have came from a Marxist or Freudian reading  in that focuses on meaning that is hidden between the lines such as, an overcast sky representing evil. The sky is overcast often, especially in certain geographical locations, so evil must be present in England all the time, or maybe, I’m just reading too much into it.

Moving beyond a somewhat dated way of interpretation, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus are interested in using “surface reading” to best identify meaning in a text. “We take surface to mean what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth” (9).  So the overcast sky so often described in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, might just mean the state of Washington has an overcast sky. Surface reading is not so much as simple and vague as described here and holds much more meaning than observing the sky patterns. “Surface Reading: An Introduction” goes on to explain “Description sees no need to translate the text into a theoretical or historical metalanguage in order to make the text meaningful” (11). This idea allows the reader to interpret and evaluate the text without the suspicion that holds hidden meanings. Because, frankly, life would get quite confusing if our books didn’t say what they meant.

Works Cited

Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108.1 (2009): 1-21. JSTOR. Web.

Literature and Emotional Exploration

Can reading classic literature help students achieve greater emotional intelligence? In “Emotion and Reason,” from Literature as Exploration, Louise M. Rosenblatt examines this question in depth. Fittingly, for the header image I chose a scene from Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a book he wrote to help children navigate their own emotional growth and resulting confusion.

Although Rosenblatt uses many examples, one of the most interesting comes from a classroom where students are discussing Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House. Because of the emotionally complex nature of the play, the students become embroiled in a conflict of opposite views and emotional tension develops. However, not only did the students find conflict amongst themselves; they also uncovered an internal dissonance over the complicated issues. (Rosenblatt 217-18) Vicariously experiencing the issues of a fictional character, although it may seem like mere pleasure reading, allowed the students to understand more of their personal frame of reference.

Viewing literature as a tool for emotional contemplation requires some shifts in teaching perspective. Firstly, it requires the teacher to subvert their own beliefs, biases, and inclinations while teaching. If a teacher lets these bubble to the surface, they will end up swaying students to an interpretation based on the teacher’s points of reference. Instead, the teacher must emphasize the process of personal exploration that each student takes in reading the literature and be open to their interpretations. Furthermore, the teacher must be comfortable with the fact that when emotions get involved, things can get messy. Keeping these things in mind can allow the classroom and the texts to become powerful sites for emotional discovery.

While the distanced, impartial approach of literary studies has valuable things to offer, it is also important for students to explore the range of human emotions that books have to offer. Doing so allows the reader to take perspectives of literary characters, build empathy, and ponder through how they would address similar situations. I am interested in thinking about how this approach to literature and emotions could translate into the field of digital humanities. Are we restricted to just data collection and visualization, charting bursts of emotions throughout a book or a literary movement? Or can we use the digital humanities to connect readers (and perhaps particularly students) more fully to emotions in literature? I believe that with innovation in the right places, the digital humanities can become a powerful tool for the latter.

Works Cited

Rosenblatt, Louise M. “Emotion and Reason.” Literature as Exploration. New York: Appleton, 1938. Online.

Surface Reading: An Archaeology of the ‘New’

In their introduction to a 2009 issue of Representations, titled “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus assert that the way we read “now” resists the symptomatic readings of a previous generation of scholars. While this previous generation searched for “hidden” meanings, many scholars have now begun to look more closely at the surfaces, the non-hidden or apparent aspects, of texts. In doing so, Best and Marcus, perhaps inadvertently, demonstrate the importance of studying the history of thought.

Continue reading “Surface Reading: An Archaeology of the ‘New’”

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