Monday, November 11, 2013

Digitally Mediating Literary Texts

adapted from gHiRo3, DeviantArt
(creative commons 3.0 license)
One of the great changes to literary study in the digital age is the ability to do things with texts previously not possible, or possible only to few. While literature's new digital life has entailed some disorder, it has has generally proven an enormous benefit, expanding the reach and role of literature as never before: providing access to and exposure of literary texts otherwise unknown or unavailable; adding a variety of aids for interpreting and exploring texts; opening new methods and theories of analysis; putting literature to new creative and educational uses; and generally giving new life to old texts. By multiplying the media through which texts are experienced, it has benefited both the creators and consumers of literary works.

What can be learned by playing with literary texts through various new media? Plenty. Using Moby Dick as a test case, I'd like my students to explore various ways of mediating literature digitally. As they do so, I want them to pay attention to how these electronic ways of dealing with literary texts open up the texts to new audiences, new meanings, and new uses. I hope that they will see that meaningful mediations do not require highly sophisticated tools in every case.
  1. Review the various ways to digitally mediate literature that are explained below. 
  2. Select one of these methods and try it out with a section of Moby Dick (or explore another way not listed here).
  3. Report on these efforts in a blog post, being sure to embed or link to whatever it is that you experimented with.
  4. Look at the blog posts of two or three other students reporting on their efforts and comment on these.
Text Source and Copyright Concerns
An important parameter for digitally mediating literature is its copyrighted status. For works that are in copyright or which do not have a creative commons license allowing for reuse and modification, there are only a few things that one can do under fair use (such as quoting from a copyrighted work for the purpose of a review). However, texts that are in the public domain, such as Moby Dick, can be dealt with in unlimited ways.

For our purposes, we can use the Project Gutenberg electronic text of Moby Dick. According to the license for that project, Project Gutenberg books that are in the public domain can be used in any way one wishes, provided that all references to Project Gutenberg in their electronic text are stripped away.

1. Search the Text
This sounds so elementary, but that is part of my point: we can open up literature in fresh and important ways through some very basic digital methods. Using the plain vanilla text of Moby Dick, try a few search terms using Cntrl-F on your computer. It doesn't take long to start eliciting some starting points for serious analysis and arguments.

In this case, I searched for "man " (404 instances) and then "woman" (10 instances). How much reference is there to females in Moby Dick? I began to wonder. "Girl"= 17 instances; "lady"= 16 instances; "mother = 12 instances"; "wife"= 13 instances; "aunt" = 10 instances. The possessive pronoun "her" = 240 instances (vs. "his"= 2124 instances). Can you see where this is going? If I started through the various instances I could also find patterns about gender in the text that are very informative.

Through a simple search of the etext I might also be able to draw some interesting conclusions based upon the location within the text where certain terms occur, or upon the presence or absence of certain terms. For example, when I searched "light" (282 instances), the visual pattern on the right indicated to me a steady use of the term across the novel, with some glaring omissions at certain chapters, such as Chapter 18 ("His Mark"); Chapter 45 ("The Affidavit"). What could this mean?

Searches of electronic texts can also be done within ebook versions of a text. Simply by how those search results appear, this can bring to mind other issues. When I searched "woman" via my Kindle app on my iPad, I noticed a pattern of invoking stereotypes about women. I could look through all of the words referencing women listed above and see if my hypothesis bears out.

2. Wordcrunch the Text
A more sophisticated kind of search and analysis of a literary text can be done through WordCruncher software. This free tool for Windows machines (developed at Brigham Young University) allows one to input any text and generate an array of interesting reports, such as

  • vocabulary dispersion (visual overview of each word's occurrence patters)
  • vocabulary frequency distribution (frequency counts for words across an entire work or any section of it).
  • neighborhood report (lists of words that collocate with a word or a phrase; families of words)
While I have not been able to download and use this tool (unavailable for Mac), I did use this tool years ago and was dumbfounded at what it could reveal about texts--especially user-provided texts. You can try this with a public domain literary work, or (if in digital form) you could upload your own journal or creative writing and wordcrunch away!

3. Reformat the Text
Take a section of Moby Dick and format this in a new way, either in imitation of a traditional book format, or in a way that relies upon electronic form. This can be done with a word processor or with any tool that allows the manipulation of text. The output could be an electronic text document, a wiki, an ebook, a presentation, a graphic image -- anything that takes the original text and plays with it in electronic form.

One reason for reformatting a text is to make its inherent structure more visible. For example, Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, is structured as a frame story. A sea captain discovers Dr. Frankenstein near the North Pole and reports the doctor's incredible account, which includes other first-person accounts by narrators such as the monster. It can get confusing. Each narrator could be indicated by a different font or color in order to keep them straight. A series of indents could also signal which level of narration one was currently reading.

In Milton's Paradise Lost, there is an inherent dramatic structure to many sections. In Book II of the work, the different devils debate what hell's inhabitants should do next. One might add the speaker's name next to his speech, reconfiguring the poem as a theatrical script.

When Grant Hardy created a Reader's Edition of the Book of Mormon, he recast many passages into poetry-- such as the quotations from Isaiah.
Grant Hardy's Reader's Edition of the Book of Mormon
reformatted poetical passages as poetry
The rhythms and images when viewed as poetical structures are understood differently (and perhaps more clearly) than if those poetical traits are effaced when the poetry is homogenized with the prose.

Hardy also inserted various subheadings to clarify logical sections of the Book of Mormon (which do not always coincide with the chapter and verse divisions that are made for reference purposes). Subheadings are a useful way to guide readers through a long or difficult text.
Subheadings added to a text by an editor
4. Add Hypertext
HTML is a simple way of formatting texts for the web, and can bring to a literary text the advantages of a hypertext arrangement if links are inserted. Project Gutenberg usually provides a very simple HTML version of its free texts, such as this hypertext version of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The table of contents is linked to the various chapters or sections of the work. More sophisticated uses of HTML can be applied to literary texts, such as in the Dartmouth online edition of Milton's works. There, scholarly notes are linked to from words within the text, appearing in a separate frame below the main text devoted to those notes:

One can create a simple hypertext document within Google Docs using the bookmark feature (for destination text, such as notes at the end of a document) and then linking to a bookmark from highlighted text. Here is a template to use if you wish to do that. The same kind of thing can be done with a wiki format, using Google Sites or a comparable service.

5. Remix the Text
In the spirit of open content and remix culture, one could take the text of Moby Dick and revise it, reduce it, or adapt it however one wanted. What if chapters were combined or reordered? What if it were redone as a series of tweets? Marc Olivier has done with Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (See his Dangerous Tweets).

6. Create an eBook edition
Why not create your own eBook edition of Moby Dick? With tools like Scrivener, iBooks Author, etc., it is not impossible to do.

7. Illustrate the text
One artist that I know of illustrated Moby Dick by doing one drawing for each page of his edition of the text. He did it for fun as an exercise, posting the drawings on his blog. Then, it caught people's attention and he ended up creating a book from his work. Why not do the same?

Prior students of mine have created visual art in response to Shakespeare's works and posted these on DeviantArt

8. Make Typography Art
Images and illustrations have always been a powerful complement to written or printed texts. Nowadays, one can use words themselves to create images: typography art. This can be static in nature, or take the form of kinetic typography.

9. Create an Audio Edition
Why not make your own audio edition of Moby Dick? This has been done in wonderful ways, including a celebrity reading with different narrators for every chapter of Moby Dick:

Make your own audio version public domain and distribute it through LibriVox to go alongside others' audio versions of great literary works.

10. Translate the Text
You can translate / adapt a text into everyday English, or into some kind of regional or cultural dialect, or into a standard foreign language. You might even use a tool like Google Translate to translate and retranslate a passage to see what becomes of it, as a way simply of exploring a text through its linguistic. Here's an example, using a paragraph describing the painting at the entrance of the Spouter Inn (in Chapter 3)

The unadulterated original from Melville:
But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted.
Translated first into French:
Mais ce que la plupart perplexe et confus vous a été longue, souple, de mauvais augure,
masse noire de quelque chose de planant dans le centre de l'image sur trois bleu, Dim, lignes perpendiculaires flottant dans une levure sans nom. A marécageux, détrempé, image Squitchy vraiment, assez pour conduire un homme nerveux distrait.
From French into German:
Aber was die meisten ratlos und verwirrt Sie war lang, weich, unheilvolle, schwarze Masse von etwas schwebt in der Mitte des Bildes in drei Blue Sun, senkrechten Linien schweben in einer namenlosen Hefe. Eine sumpfige Bild matschig Squitchy wirklich genug, um einen nervösen Mann abgelenkt fahren. 
From German to Japanese:
 And back to English...
However, some long, soft, sinister, it was a black mass floating in the center of the image of three and embarrassment and confusion most Vertical line that comes to yeast Blue Sun, anonymous. Marshy Enough mushy Squitchy image really to drive the diffuse nerve man.
vs. the original again:
But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted.
I think the Japanese version took over in terms of tone. The passage about an impressionistic painting became more impressionistic and poetical. It's interesting to see what comes through unscathed ("squitchy") and what changes more (like the syntax).


Whatever you do, actively work with the text within words, design or media that differ from the original, and then think about how this freshens your perspective on the original story and text.

What other ways could we digitally mediate Moby Dick or any public domain literary text?