This lab asks you to apply two types of reading strategies to William Gibson’s Neuromancer:
- Close reading. You’re probably already used to this reading technique. It’s what you learn in high school and college when you read poetry and other texts. Close reading focuses on individual, textured words in the text—where these textured words appear, how they are used, what characters or settings are associated with them, what they represent and evoke outside of the text, and what they represent and evoke inside the text.
- Computational reading. Sometimes called “non-consumptive reading,” “distant reading,” or “text analysis,” computational reading isn’t reading so much as it is subjecting a text to computer analysis, allowing the computer’s algorithms to map patterns that might otherwise escape a reader’s notice. Computational reading might confirm what you already think you know about a text, but it also might reveal surprises that make you ask new questions about the text.
Part I: Close Reading
For the first part of the lab you will analyze a single word (including close variants of that word—plurals, possessives, and so on) as it appears in Neuromancer.
- Pick a single “textured” word and trace its use in Neuromancer. You can easily find words by opening the text file of Neuromancer in a text editing tool, like TextEdit on Macs or WordPad on Windows. Note: this text file is for the exclusive use of this lab and should not be used or shared beyond this assignment.
- Possible words to track include: meat, metal, sky, eyes, port, skin, brain, death, steel, chrome, finger, vat, tear, sex, temperfoam, wood, book, paper, voice, thumb, smell. These words are simply suggestions. Feel free to find your own rich and textured word in Neuromancer. There is no need to track multiple words; just focus on a single word (and its variants).
- Note how often the word occurs, in what contexts, how it might be clustered with other words, and anything else significant about the word’s appearance, prevalence, and relevance. And by “note” I literally mean take notes about the word and its usage.
Part II: Computational Reading
- Voyant Tools is a suite of computational text analysis tools that runs in your browser. Developed by Stéfan Sinclair and Geoffrey Rockwell, Voyant offers a number of ways to slice and dice a text through computational means, including word clouds, scatterplots, concordances, collocates, and more. Be sure to consult the Voyant documentation if you need help.
- Upload the Neuromancer text file to Voyant and start screwing around. Try various tools, such as Bubblelines, Knots, Phases, and so on. Some tools will yield more valuable insights than others.
- Note surprises and oddities. What can you learn about Neuromancer with these tools? But also think about the tools themselves. How do they work? What do they promise?
Your lab report should contain three sections:
- In a section called Close Reading analyze the patterns that emerge from this word’s use: Is it associated with one character or context? Does its meaning shift throughout the novel? Are there exceptions to the pattern? Are there differences between the literal and symbolic use of the word? Are there tensions between the word’s use in the novel and its use in everyday, real life? What themes come into focus by concentrating on this individual word? Use specific usages of the word as evidence to support your claims.
- In a section called Computational Reading analyze the results of your text analysis experiments. What tools did you use and why? What keywords or patterns did you focus on? How does visualizing Neuromancer through Voyant’s tools change your thinking about the novel? What genuinely surprising results did you uncover?
- In a section called Synthesis discussion what you learned (or didn’t learn) about Neuromancer through these two kinds of readings. Also consider the the strengths and limitations of these two kinds of reading.
Because of the constrained nature of this assignment, there is no need to spend precious space on a lofty introduction or grandiose conclusion. Dig right into the actual analysis of the two types of reading.
The final lab report should be about 500 words and is due Tuesday, September 5 by 5pm. You’ll submit the lab report as a Google Document by sharing it with email@example.com and giving me commenting privileges.
One philosophical inspiration for this lab comes from Stephen Ramsay, “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around; or, What You Do with a Million Books” from Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology 2014), pp. 111–120.
The computational reading aspects of this lab were inspired by Paul Fyfe’s article “How to Not Read a Victorian Novel” from Journal of Victorian Culture (2011), pp. 84–88.