Response: How to Not Read Books with Computers

Good discussion again. The topic was a little hard to wrangle, but I left the meeting feeling like I had more tools in my digital pockets. Franco Moretti’s articles intrigued me the most. His description of distant reading seems most valuable as a mirror to close reading. A mirror that makes the literary practitioners among us question basic approaches to studying texts. Close reading dominates literary studies in a nearly unquestioned manner. Moretti, coming from the field of comparative literature, realizes the limitations and canon-fueled impossibilities that close reading necessitates. His statement in “Conjectures on World Literature” sums it up best:

But the trouble with close reading (in all of its incarnations, from the new criticism to deconstruction) is that it necessarily depends on an extremely small canon…And if you want to look beyond the canon (and of course, world literature will do so: it would be absurd if it didn’t!) close reading will not do it. It’s not designed to do it, it’s designed to do the opposite. At bottom, it’s a theological exercise—very solemn treatment of very few texts taken very seriously. (New Left Review 1).

But as exhibited in Moretti’s article from Critical Inquiry, the question of close reading versus distant reading is not an either/or. Rather, it has to be a both/and. Moretti’s reading zooms beyond close, to the point of magnified, when he explores the parts of speech for titles of British novels between 1740 and 1850. His approach, always blending distant with close reading, is valuable as an example for how to make use of and represent/write about distant reading.

At the end of the discussion, I enjoyed messing around with JSTOR’s “Data for Research.” I am interested to find out more about how they set up their database.


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