Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Distant reading and the Stanford Lit Lab

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Extremely interesting article by Kathryn Schulz published over a month ago in the NY Times Sunday Book Review. I just found it today:

“Ars longa,” the ancient saying goes, “vita brevis.” Art is long, life short, and the problem is intensifying. As the literary ars lurches exponentially more longa — accommodating the printing press, “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Google Books — our collective TBR pile towers ever more vertiginously overhead. Which raises a question: What are we mortal beings supposed to do with all these books?

Franco Moretti has a solution: don’t read them. Moretti is not a satirist. He’s an Italian literary scholar and the founder of the Stanford Literary Lab, which opened last year, published its maiden pamphlet in January and followed up with another last month. The first pamphlet asks whether computers can recognize literary genres, and the second uses network theory to re-envision plots.

As its name suggests, the Lit Lab tackles literary problems by scientific means: hypothesis-testing, computational modeling, quantitative analysis. Similar efforts are currently proliferating under the broad rubric of “digital humanities,” but Moretti’s approach is among the more radical. He advocates what he terms “distant reading”: understanding literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.

We need distant reading, Moretti argues, because its opposite, close reading, can’t uncover the true scope and nature of literature. Let’s say you pick up a copy of “Jude the Obscure,” become obsessed with Victorian fiction and somehow manage to make your way through all 200-odd books generally considered part of that canon. Moretti would say: So what? As many as 60,000 other novels were published in 19th-century England — to mention nothing of other times and places. You might know your George Eliot from your George Meredith, but you won’t have learned anything meaningful about literature, because your sample size is absurdly small. Since no feasible amount of reading can fix that, what’s called for is a change not in scale but in strategy. To understand literature, Moretti argues, we must stop reading books.

The Lit Lab seeks to put this controversial theory into practice (or, more aptly, this practice into practice, since distant reading is less a theory than a method). . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

31 July 2011 at 9:32 am

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