Finally, a solution for bibliophiles drowning under the weight of their own book purchases: don't read those voluminous tomes, feed them into a computer and make graphs instead! Heresy? This, according to literary scholar cum-statistician Franco Moretti, is the only way to grasp the immensity of world literature. William Gladstone claimed that one could read 22,000 books in a lifetime. But who has the time or shelf space? Luckily Moretti's Stanford Literary Lab is designed to solve such burning bookish anxieties. The New York Times had the following to say about Moretti's literary rebellions:
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.
In his groundbreaking Graphs, Maps, Trees, Franco Moretti argued that scholars of literature should stop reading books and start counting, graphing, and mapping them instead. In place of the traditionally selective literary canon of a few hundred texts, he presented a bold experiment in literary historiography, one composed of charts, maps, and time lines, in which the canon disappeared into the larger literary system. Moretti's quantitative, interdisciplinary intervention unsurprisingly sparked great debate in the field of literary history.
This wide-ranging essay by Timothy Burke is informed by his experience as an Africanist historian and responds to the Moretti approach with an assessment of its pitfalls, and potential.