Get Ready For a “Quantitative Approach” to Reading

From an article by Josh Mayo over at First Things:

At Stanford, literary scholar and marxist critic Franco Moretti proposes a radical plan for English departments: less reading, more computing. With an ocean of texts yet to be studied, literary-historians must, Moretti argues, adopt the methods of quantitative history, geography, and evolutionary theory. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (2005) frames the problem in layman’s terms: The whole canon of the nineteenth century British novel—about two hundred titles, Moretti estimates—

“is still less than one per cent of the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knows—and close reading won’t help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so. . . . And it’s not even a matter of time, but of method: a field this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases, because it isn’t a sum of individual cases: it’s a collective system, that should be grasped as such, as a whole.”

To grasp this collective system, Moretti calls for a “quantitative approach to literature”—hence the graphs, maps, and trees—which will “widen the domain of the literary historian” and deal in data “ideally independent of interpretations.” Moretti calls this approach “distant reading,” a method of “deliberate reduction and abstraction” which yields historical patterns through artificial constructs. Moretti hopes emerging literary labs can collect and share data and create a new quarry for the digital humanities, a future heretofore unimagined in literary scholarship: namely, research without close-reading.

A further eroding of education as the means of transmitting virtue and instead transforming it into a simple acquisition of skills, much to our detriment. As Mayo puts it:

Here is a rather unfashionable thought: Perhaps analysis is not the summum bonum of reading. Perhaps the remedy isn’t more critical thinking. While analysis aids us in breaking down a text into its mechanical, interlocking parts, analysis alone cannot relate literary experience to life. That good comes a different way, through a moral (or dare we say, religious) mode of thought. As David Hicks has observed, it is “normative inquiry, not analysis,” which “renders experience valuable to mankind. . . . In the study of arts and letters, normative inquiry must precede and sustain analysis.”

Still, in our age of postliteracy and transliteracy, educators remain consumed with the analytical, descriptive questions of what is or seems and forget prescriptive inquiry into what ought to be, the questions that calibrate the heart’s moral compass and provide a way of integrating wisdom with experience. Ironically, while the former may enable us to float in the digital deluge, only the latter apprehends a world beyond the storm, an olive branch sent from somewhere better we may yet arrive.

It is definitely worth reading the entire article.


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