Tools such as Wordle and Ngram are like any other tool.  They have their uses and strengths, but they also have their limitations.  Because of their specific limitations, they are not the best way to interpret literature.  It is simply a matter of what they are lacking; they are computer programs, and as such they do not have a shred of humanity.  Humanity gives its own meaning to literature, and everything else it comes into contact with.  Because of this, programs such as these cannot become the best tools for interpreting literature.  The results they pour out mean nothing until they are fed into another machine.  The best tool for the task is one that has existed as long as our species, and the thing that separates men and women from the animals roaming the Earth.

The human brain, when nurtured with care, is capable of finding and applying meaning to the most complex and vague ideas.  Wordle and Ngram cannot replace this step in interpreting literature.  They have use, however, and can give readers a general direction in which to go.  But this too, acts as a double –edged blade we must be cautious of.  After all, if all we do is follow the direction provided by a digital road map, how will we ever trek off into uncharted territory?  It is too easy to be tempted by the simple, neat package that Wordle and Ngram can giftwrap for us.   These programs may be able to highlight words and thoughts that are important, but they don’t show every category or possible route.

The basic objective of the programs, showcasing which words appear the most often in relation to other words in the work as well as other books, is great for studying the systematic layout of a work.  It can provide insight into words that may be of great importance, and draws our attention to them.  However, simple repetition does not bestow importance on a word.  Context, and just as importantly subtext, are far more important when sifting through a jungle of text on a page.  In fact, too much use of a word may in effect render it meaningless.  The truth is, that no matter what the words are on the page, one must focus the mind on meaning in order to come up with a viable answer.  Simply looking at a Wordle is not going to help all that much.  By showing the reader that the word Amontillado is used the most times by Poe, one might misunderstand the point of the narrative.  Poe wasn’t writing a tale about the deliciousness of a specific type of wine.  He merely uses the wine as a plot device to move the story along, and it is a temptation that Montresor uses to exploit a weakness in Fortunato.  The word doesn’t have a hidden meaning or significance.  However, simply looking at the wordle above might lead an unsuspecting reader to think it does.

The programs also don’t solve the problem of how the experiences of the individual will affect interpretation.  It is something we as readers cannot, under any circumstance, remove from a reading of a text.  By simply thinking about our readings, we are placing them under a lens of our own lives.  Questions inevitably arise, and can jade our thoughts, or perhaps enhance them.  Either way, we tend to focus on things in how they relate to us.  This is how we achieve many of our findings.  It cannot be simply reduced to how many times the word “Amontillado” or the guttural sound “ugh” appears.  Poe didn’t write the words as many times as he did in order to imprint them in our minds.  Rather, he used them to portray ideas or move the story forward in the effort to achieve his goal of writing an attractive piece of literature to keep his fame alive and support himself as a writer without having to resort to a more benign career.

Wordle and Ngram are tools, nothing more.  They are certainly not the most important aspect of interpreting literature.  We are.



2 Responses to “Digital Humanities”

  1.   Henna said:

    I love this font and color scheme, and, mostly, that one of the overarching, enlarged words is “ugh”!

  2.   Kevin L. Ferguson said:

    When you talked about the human brain, I was wondering if you think computers will ever be able to replicate those processes (but we’re just not there yet), or if literary interpretation is something that cannot be quantified?

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