At first thought, the idea that studying trends in books is more important than reading the books themselves seems absurd. But the more one considers the argument put forward by Stanford professor Franco Moretti, the more the concept starts gains some validity.
It’s called distant reading, and according to the new NY Times blog Mechanic Muse, the argument goes something like this: Distant reading doesn’t call for the abandonment of book reading altogether. Instead, it’s about not trying to read as many books as you possibly can, mostly because it’s futile and inefficient when it comes to acquiring knowledge. By gathering data/statistics/trends from books en masse, the scholarly types can better understand a given literary era, genre, or movement, and more effectively contextualise the essential works.
Moretti envisions a computer that rifle through books, analyse those texts for themes, style, keywords and things of the like, then organise that data into something coherent. We wouldn’t have to spend hours deciphering archaic prose to extract minor details, nor would we have to slog through stacks of mediocre texts. According to the Mechanic Muse, Moretti has already found some success with rudimentary analysis software.
In its January pamphlet, for instance, the team fed 30 novels identified by genre into two computer programs, which were then asked to recognise the genre of six additional works. Both programs succeeded – one using grammatical and semantic signals, the other using word frequency.
But even more promising, Moretti thinks such a method could help uncover hidden aspects about plot and character. The only problem is that he’s lacks the knowledge and resources to build an app efficient enough to parse the thousands, maybe even millions, of books to build out the analytical database. Until then, this is more an idea for the future than an idea for the now. [Stanford Lit Lab via Mechanic Muse]