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Hamlet in the machine—Franco Moretti's distant reading in the New York Times

Chris Webb12 July 2011

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 book Graphs, Maps and Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary Theory, Moretti explains distant reading as an approach where distance "is not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of the overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Forms. Models." Perceiving this approach as too rigid, guided more by the whirrings of microprocessors than the richness of subjective human sensibility, our journalist cries foul:

The trouble is that Moretti isn't studying a science. Literature is an artificial universe, and the written word, unlike the natural world, can't be counted on to obey a set of laws. Indeed, Moretti often mistakes metaphor for fact. Those "skeletons" he perceives inside stories are as imposed as exposed; and literary evolution, unlike the biological kind, is largely an analogy.

Say what you will about Moretti's scientific method, I can think of a few titles better off in graph form. Atlas Shrugged anyone?

Visit the New York Times to read the article in full.

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