The New Critics gave us close reading, the engagement with the minute verbal nuances of a text, and the mode still thrives—Helen Vendler’s studies of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Dickinson’s poems are classic contemporary examples. But as Moretti argues in “Conjectures on World Literature,” one of the essays in his new collection, Distant Reading, close reading implies that certain texts are especially worthy of this kind of scrutiny—that is, it implies a canon. “If you want to look beyond the canon ... close reading will not do it,” he observes; you can closely read two hundred poems, but not twenty thousand poems. To analyze such a large quantity of texts, you need to “focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems.” And this is the kind of concrete pattern-finding that computers specialize in. Distant reading is reading like a computer, not like a human being: as Moretti forthrightly says, “We know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.”

Moretti gives an example of this kind of not-reading in an essay revealingly titled “Style, Inc.: Reflections on 7,000 Titles.” Rather than read every novel published in Britain between 1740 and 1850, a task that would fill a lifetime, he takes only the titles of all those novels, and uses a computer program to find patterns in the data. One such pattern emerges right away: over the period in question, the average length of a title decreases dramatically, from fifteen to twenty words at the beginning to six words at the end. This is owed especially to the disappearance of very long titles, which were conventional in early novels but became unfashionable.

« The New Critics gave us... »

A quote saved on Aug. 11, 2014.


Top related keywords - double-click to view: