Blog Post

When Reading Fails

In light of several recent posts around here about reading (as genre, as practice, and as cultural marker), I thought I'd take the occasion of my first post to complicate reading—and all that it entails—a little more. 

I'm interested in the moments when reading gets you nowhere—when, in the course of your research, you're looking for a story that hasn't been recorded; when, in the absence of narrative richness, you must supply your own; when, as a scholar, in supplying that richness, you instead reinscribe certain damaging notions about voices that remain silent, inexorably consigned to the past.

I'm certainly not the first person to be interested in these challenges, or to propose a solution. Derek Attridge, whose work is documented on this site, describes a method of "responding responsibly" that is grounded in the particular reader's relationship to the particular text. Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus, more recently, have theorized a new critical stance, a set of descriptive and analytical practices that they define, collectively, as "surface reading." Then, of course, there's Franco Moretti's notion of "distant reading," which doesn't directly engage in issues of literary ethics, but offers another compelling model for thinking about how we read, and how we might read more.

But I'd like to set reading aside for the moment, and think, instead, about what we can see

Consider this example, from my book project (which is the subject for another post at another time): James Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's enslaved personal chef (and the older brother of Sally), whom Jefferson took to Paris and had trained in the high French culinary style. Reading the few records that document Hemings's life—either closely, or on the surface—reveals these basic facts. We can also read, for instance, that while in Paris he hired a tutor and became fluent in French. We read that, four years after his return, in 1793, he successfully negotiated with Jefferson to secure his freedom. And we read that, sometime over the summer of 1801, James Hemings committed the "melancholy" act of suicide.      

We can read into these scant documents to a certain extent—we can speculate about the personal, social, and cultural contexts during which they were recorded. We can compare them to similar documents, and compare Hemings's life to others' lives we know more about. We can attribute to Hemings certain forms of knowledge, and experience, and feelings. We can even examine our own motives for reading, and, as Jill Lepore advises, measure the compassion of our response. But when we've completed these forms of reading (and associated critical practices), we're still left wanting to know more.

When, in the course of my research on James Hemings, I realized that I couldn't read any more about his life, I started to ask myself what else I could see.

So I set out to visualize the social network that surrounded Hemings. I'd already searched the Papers of Thomas Jefferson for documents that explicitly mentioned, or that the editors indicated as mentioning, Hemings Network Arc Diagrammembers of the Hemings family. Thanks to the University of Virginia's Rotunda Press, that maintains the digital edition of the Papers, I was able to text-mine that subset of documents for the names of all the people who were mentioned. I then developed a basic co-appearance script that allowed me to keep track of the relationships between the people mentioned, and the number of times each person was mentioned together. Finally, using Protovis, I was able to create the image to the left. (Click here to open a larger version of this visualization in a new window). In contrast to the sixteen documents (out of an estimated 18,000) that turn up in a search for "James Hemings" in the Jefferson Papers, James Hemings here is positioned at the center of the diagram. This central position points to the undocumented labor—the difficult, daily labor—that Hemings was required to perform.

We might also note, more generally, that the arcs that link Jefferson to the men and women who served him are much wider than those that link him to his many correspondents, indicating the degree to which Jefferson relied on his staff to implement his various directives—buying things, selling things, even telling them things. The visualization brings these dependencies to the surface, even as it cannot tell us what these people said in their conversations, where they went in order to conduct their transactions, and how they truly lived their everyday lives.

This visualization also serves as a reminder that no piece of writing—a letter, a novel, an emancipation agreement, or anything else—exists alone. Rather, all texts are bound up in a set of larger social and cultural networks, informing both content and context. Seeing this allows us, in turn, to read more deeply. We are made aware of how writing is always contextualized in its historical present, as well as recontextualized by readers today. 

Finally, this visualization offers some acknowledgement of the lives and stories that will forever remain unknown. And for us as critics—indeed, as readers—this visualization challenges us to make the untold stories that we detect, and might otherwise pass over, instead expand in our eyes with significance and meaning.

Lauren Klein is an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. Her research interests include early American literature and culture, food studies, media studies, and the digital humanities. Her writing has appeared, most recently, in Early American Literature, American Literature, and American Quarterly. She has taught at Brooklyn College and at Macaulay Honors College, both branches of the City University of New York. Between 2007 and 2008, she worked as an educational technology consultant for One Laptop per Child, a non-profit aimed at bringing low-cost laptops to children in the developing world.