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Our experience of literature is usually temporal: we read from one side of the page to the other, from top to bottom, from beginning to end. We experience literature — especially narrative literature — as a kind of journey, "plodding" through long stories, "racing" to the end of exciting ones, "following" a plot that makes sense, getting "lost" in one that's confusing.

What if we could consume the whole thing in one all-encompassing gaze? What if, instead of moving through a literary work, we could stand apart from it and view it whole?

What if, like Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol, we could "live in the Past, the Present, and the Future" of a work — particularly a narrative work — grasping the beginning together with the middle and the end?

This is actually something that critics dream of doing, and that one seems almost able to do after having read a work many times, so that eventually one reads all the earlier words in the text with an awareness of all the words that follow it, right through to the last words, and with a sense that the meaning of the whole now pervades one's experience of each moment within it.

It's also possible to experience a fleeting and imperfect sensation of taking in the whole text at once by asking a computer to count the words in the text and construct a visual representation of their frequency. This is a thinner experience of wholeness than the one that comes from multiple re-readings, but it has the potential to re-orient one's reading by more radically disrupting the text's temporality.

If you plug the gutenberg.org version of A Christmas Carol into TagCrowd, for example, asking TagCrowd to count the top 100 words by frequency (omitting common words such as "and" and "the"), this is what you get:


Click thumbnail to see larger image.

You get prettier results (but no numbers) if you plug the text into Wordle. Actually, I don't think this difference is just aesthetic: The Wordle of A Christmas Carol conveys a sense of how Scrooge dominates this story more dramatically than the TagCrowd cloud does:


Click thumbnail to see larger image.

What else do these visual representations show you about Dickens' story? If you have any thoughts, click the header to this blogpost, then "Add Comment" to write something.

Update: (11/16) Actually, I made a few different Wordles from A Christmas Carol. Click on any thumbnail below to start a slideshow of them.