DIY Digital Humanities

The digital humanities are known for major-infrastructure projects, such as data-crunching the contents of capacious corpora and charting the movement of vast numbers of people and ideas over space and time. An example picked from many is Martin Grandjean’s pleasingly meta visualization of digital-humanities Twitter users, below.

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Grandjean parses: “This graph consists of 1,434 nodes connected by 137,061 directed edges, each symbolizing a user ‘following’ another on Twitter.” The data, he says, show that “this little community is very dense, such a small world in which no one is very far from the neighboring cluster.”

The discipline is resolutely expanding its boundaries. As two digital humanists wrote in 2016, “Along with the digital archives, quantitative analyses, and tool-building projects that once characterized the field, DH now encompasses a wide range of methods and practices: visualizations of large image sets, 3D modeling of historical artifacts, ‘born digital’ dissertations, hashtag activism and the analysis thereof, alternate reality games, mobile makerspaces, and more.”

But you don’t have to be fancy to do DH. For example, I effected some with merely a Kindle Fire loaded with a copy of Bill Bryson’s recent book The Road to Little Dribbing. I generally like reading on the Kindle because (1) it balances nicely on my stomach while I’m reading in bed; (2) I can turn it on in the middle of the night without disturbing my wife; and (3) if I forget who a character is in a novel, I can quickly call up every appearance he or she has made. (What I don’t like it for is browsing and looking up footnotes, both of which it is hopeless at.) It also allows you to crunch some modest data.

Reading the Bryson — a tour of Britain that serves as a 20-years-on sequel to his Notes on a Small Island — it struck me that there was a particular word he uses a lot. The word is lovely. That or any other word can be searched in a Kindle (or other e-) book. Bryson uses lovely 59 times, and loveliest an additional six. The first appearance is on Page 4, where he remarks that the French town of Deauville is “well-off and lovely.” The last is on the book’s last page: “There isn’t a landscape in the world more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in than the countryside of Great Britain.” (The copy editor missed the comma after in.)

I noticed more characteristic Brysonian epithets as I read on, all occupying, along with lovely, a place on the positive-adjective continuum. Deciding to get my digital humanities on, I searched for the words, counted them, and used the free Infogram application to chart them. 

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Bill Bryson’s go-to words in “The Road to Little Dribbing.” Numbers in Y axis indicate how many times each word was used.

Having done this, I realized what must be one of the key challenges of digital humanities: You’ve harnessed data and made a neat graphic. Then you have to say what it all means, which isn’t as easy or fun.

But here goes. A wise man once said (in French), “Style is the man himself.” The words that Bill Bryson uses a lot reveal the sort of person he is — or at least the persona that comes through in his writing and that draws his many readers to his books. Bryson at times affects a curmudgeonly harrumphing, complaining about rude clerks and incompetent bureaucrats and at one point setting down an Andy-Rooneyesque list of the things that annoy him, including:

  • Color names, like taupe and teal, that don’t mean anything.

  • Saying that you are going to “reach out” to someone when what you mean is that you are going to call or get in touch with them.

But that’s a smokescreen. He is more or less the anti-Paul Theroux — also an American writer who has lived much of his life in England, but who has probably never used the word lovely unironically. Bryson is a connoisseur of approbation, keen to make subtle distinctions among his laudatory epithets–at one point writing of gardens “which are pleasant if nowhere near as splendid as Buxton’s Pavilion Gardens.” In his book, never is he happier than when he has had a look at a lovely view, then traipsed around an interesting museum, followed by a wonderful piece of cake and a jolly good cup of tea. You could look it up.




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