How to read 3 Victorian novels in 2.5 hours

I can’t really promise that. (I mean, Miriam can probably do it, but not mere mortals.)

But this is the exercise we did in my Digital Literary Studies class tonight:

  • Find e-texts of two Victorian novels (we used Hard Times & Silas Marner)
  • Go to, and create 15-20 word clouds of the word frequencies in each chapter of both novels.
  • Write a one/two sentence “summary” of each chapter in such a way that the summaries reflect the drifts in word count.
  • Obviously the summary’s not going to accurately reflect the plot, but it will deliver some information about the language of the text.  This isn’t supposed to be an actual substitute for reading, but rather a very rough cut at patterns in a text. (Example: A student just observed that, viewed from the perspective of TagCrowd, Shirley slightly resembles a Harlequin romance.  The intersection of romance plot & industrial novel is, of course, an actual interpretative issue . . . .)
  •  After writing these little summaries, I asked the students to find an e-text of yet another Victorian novel, and then to open up TAPoR‘s Text Analysis Recipes.  They then applied Recipe 1: Identify Themes within a Text to their chosen text.  The result is, in just a few minutes, a reasonably competent assemblage of some themes in a novel, which close reading can then supplement.

As I say–none of these can replace actually doing the reading. But they are useful, even with quite inexperienced practitioners, in helping orient readers to the kinds of patterns through which novelists make meaning.

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