Digital Humanities Sheds Light on Literature

Computers can help researchers understand text in new ways

Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedintumblrmail
Adam Hammond

Adam Hammond

Reading and riding both hold stories for Adam Hammond. Besides taking a wide view on literature as the newly appointed digital humanities specialist at Guelph, he’s a long-distance cyclist with a self-confessed masochistic streak.

Twice a week or so, he saddles up with other randonneurs for treks of 100 to 200 kilometres at a time. Hammond started distance cycling while doing grad studies in English in Toronto. “I like pushing myself to physical exhaustion.”

Almost as painstaking is his obsession – one of many, he confesses – with building his own bikes. One, assembled in 2011, bears the moniker A. Hammond. Another is called the Greg Curnoe, modelled after a painting of a bicycle by late artist Greg Curnoe, who was killed in 1992 while riding with his London, Ont., cycling club. Yet another is named Marcel after Proust – one of Hammond’s favourite novelists.

In each case, Hammond documents the process in detailed words and photos on his blog, worth a look not just for cyclists but for anyone who questions the craftsmanship involved in assembling a two-wheeler from scratch. Call it the close reading of bicycle design and construction, down to the last stem clamp, seat lug and derailleur.

So what’s the connection between cycling and text? Says Hammond: “Every ride is a story. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s friendship, betrayal, tension.”

On one outing, he dropped a slower cyclist to catch up with the lead pack. After having turned back from the day’s halfway point, the group ran across that lone Sisyphus on two wheels. “There was the guy I had abandoned. He gave me a look of pure hatred. I had ruined his day.

“Bike rides are a compressed narrative. It’s also good to get your mind off work and be creative.”

In January, he arrived at Guelph as the inaugural holder of the Michael Ridley Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Digital Humanities. The position is supported by the College of Arts and the library.

Using computing power to churn through huge volumes of electronic text, digital humanities seeks out patterns and perspectives that might elude more close reading, even by a literature or linguistics professor.

Hammond sees himself as a consultant for any researcher in the College of Arts wishing to examine text using quantitative analysis. That text includes ever-growing collections of digital books, including whole libraries’ worth of material on sites such as Google Books, JSTOR and Internet Archive.

Far from just scanning books and placing them online, he says, “The exciting thing about digital analysis is to prompt us to look at text in a new way. The goal is to promote discussion — to see something you hadn’t noticed before.”

Ridley, formerly U of G’s chief information officer and chief librarian, says, “A lot of people think of digital humanities as just how to use computers on text. If that’s all, it would just be a technique or a tool set.”

But there’s as much creativity as technology about it. “It’s a way of creating differently, but it’s also a way of understanding things differently.”

Hammond came to digital humanities more or less by accident during his studies of modernism for his doctorate.

At the University of Toronto, he began working with English professor Melba Cuddy-Keane on a project researching usages of specific words in modernist studies. Along with another Toronto PhD grad, Alexandra Peat, they wrote Modernism: Keywords, to be published this year.

The volume consists of essays about dozens of words that have sparked usage debate between 1880 and 1950 – basically, says Hammond, “words that modernists argue about.”

That project saw him winnowing through databanks of digitized text for specific words and their uses in anything from literature to advertising. That process more or less defines digital humanities.

“We didn’t realize this was a digital humanities project. We thought it was an old-fashioned scholarly project,” he says. “At that point I became a digital humanist without realizing it.”

That continued during his post-doc at the University of Victoria. There, he worked on a project digitizing and comparing versions of modernist texts, including manuscripts, typescripts and book editions. The team included scholars from Canada, the United States and Ireland.

These projects involve what he calls distant reading, or using digital resources to scan huge amounts of text.

Contrast that with the close reading of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis for his doctorate at U of T.

Also at Toronto, he developed and taught a course called “The Digital Text” from 2011 to 2013. For that, he worked with another instructor who came up with an algorithm allowing a computer to distinguish different voices in Eliot’s The Waste Land. Students scanned the poem looking for voice shifts and then compared their results with the computer’s “reading.”

Authorial voice is no small matter for Hammond, a voracious close reader with an ear for literary style as well as for anecdote. “I love style. I love writers who have style.”

Among his favourites are Vladimir Nabokov (Pale Fire), William Blake (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Brothers) and Canadian-born Wyndham Lewis (Tarr).

At Guelph, he will teach an undergrad course in close and distant reading next fall. He will also lead the existing Digital Humanities @ Guelph reading series run by the College of Arts. The college also runs a speaker series and workshops on the topic.

Despite his immersion in digital works, Hammond says print is hardly dying. He reads his share of academic articles online. But for all its convenience, that medium has its shortcomings. “I really prefer to read ‘book books,’ even books about digital humanities,” he says.

In a provocative travel piece in the Globe and Mail last month, he mused about the literary merits of cruising. Ignoring the planned entertainment on a transatlantic crossing last year freed him up to plow through numerous volumes borrowed from the ship’s library, including Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

On another reading holiday to Hungary with his girlfriend – then on a law school exchange from Canada — he completed all 1.5 million words of Proust’s seven-volume In Search of Lost Time. Having finished that marathon before the trip ended, he went on to re-read James Joyce’s Ulysses and then everything by Dickens.

“It was four months of non-stop reading,” he grins.

To bibliophiles fretting over a world of Kindles and literature that can be summoned from the ether and dismissed just as readily, Hammond offers words of comfort. He says the digital alternative helps us better appreciate the conventional book. “You understand something better when there’s an alternative to it.”

“It’s my professional responsibility to try out e-readers and iPads. All that experience has taught me was how perfect a medium for literature the book is.”

He’s writing another book, Literature in the Digital Age: A Critical Introduction, to be published in 2015 by Cambridge University Press.

Next year, he will also publish The Art of Superbrothers: Indie Video Games and the Future of Storytelling through Coach House Press. Hammond is interested in the creative possibilities held out by new media, particularly video games – what he calls “the next form of storytelling.”