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Distance Reading Using the Google Book Ngram Viewer (Essay Sample)


For complete assignment, please see attached file. Here is the gist of it:
Our assignment will be an experiment with the Ngram Reader. We will consider “distance” not only as the subject of our investigation but also as a potential mode of reading and interpretation. What does literary criticism and analysis look like if we accept distance “as a condition of knowledge”? (Moretti)
For our class, distance is a good approach to 18th century English literature, considering that hundreds of books of prose fiction were published. When poetry and short fiction are added, the opus is into the thousands. We, however, are reading only a small fraction of the literary texts in our class.
So how do we approach the ocean of 18th century British literary texts? We cannot read them all. But perhaps we can learn how to not read them. (I hope you are intrigued.)
Here’s how we’ll be engaging in the kinds of experimentation, computational analysis, and play.
1. Select a Novel – I’ve picked Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, (British, 1749) if you want to do one of the other selections, feel free.
Select an 18th century British novel for this assignment. It should be a novel you have never read—and you still are not going to read it. You can find its full text on a site like Project Gutenberg. See:
So, there is no need to buy a book or go to the library.
Selected List of Novels
(There are plenty more, though. Select your own!)

Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, (British, 1719) - considered by many the first novel in English
Eliza Haywood, Love in Excess, (British, 1719)
Samuel Richardson, Pamela, (British, 1740)
Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, (British, 1749)
Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, (British, 1759–1767)
Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, (Scottish, 1771)
2. Make some predictions
Once you select your novel and locate it on Project Gutenberg, ponder a bit. What do you think this work is about? You have never read it, but if it is a well-known book, you probably have some idea what it is about. What do you think the major themes of the book are? Jot down your ideas and thoughts.
3. Explore Ngrams and Select Search Terms and Date
Google’s Ngram Viewer displays the frequency of worlds over time by drawing on the massive Google Books corpus, which includes the text of more than 15 million books. For more on Ngrams see the Wikipedia entry:
Choose several of the words you’ve concentrated on in your previous analyses in Step 2, and enter them into the Ngram viewer. Be sure to set the date perimeter. Look at the frequency of those words through time, paying particular attention to their frequency when your chosen novel was published. Do any of them stand out? Try a few more words, if you like. Experiment and play.
The big question here: Can a tool like the Ngras viewer, which analyzes so many texts, help you understand anything about the historical and intellectual place of a book you have never read? (Moretti)
4. Read the First Few Pages
Now that you have not read the entire work, go back and actually read some of its first pages. How accurate were your predictions? Describe what the books seems to be about, based on the few pages you did read.
5. Write a Short Reflection
Finally, write a short essay describing what you did and what you learned. Please keep the emphasis on what you learned and what questions regarding literary scholarship come to mind. The goal of this assignment is to ruminate on what kinds of knowledge a distant reading can or cannot produce. Use MLA format.


Course: LIT/ 235
Distance Reading Using the Google Book Ngram Viewer
1. Select a Novel –
I picked Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, (British, 1749)
2. Make some predictions
The eighteenth-century novel Tom Jones (1749) by Henry Fielding focuses on the story of Tom Jones, as the main character and his experiences, including his love life. Life in eighteenth-century England was characterized by distinct social classes while the City of London was growing.
The major themes of the book are:
* Love and marriage
* Social classes
* Wealth and money
* Life in eighteenth-century English society
3. Explore Ngrams and Select Search Terms and Date
Marriage, social classes, wealth, and English society were searched in Ngram. Marriage remains the most popular word mentioned and has increased in frequency from the 19th century to the 21st century. The “social class” was barely mentioned in the early nineteenth century, but there was increased mention in the 1870s, and was most frequent in the period from 1950 to 1970 after WWII. Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that the frequency of the word “wealth” has been between 0.00027% to 0.00042 % from 1800 to 2000, and the frequency of the word has changed slowly over time. The word “gentry,” which reflects the large landowners and upper class that was not necessarily part of the English nobility, is used less often than in the 19th century. The word gentry stands out as there is a general decline in the use of the word, and it was more common than marriage

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