Books Are Not Data

You might have come across a recent article by Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker entitled “An Attempt to Discover the Laws of Literature,” and you might have thought, “huh, the laws of literature? As in, the laws of physics?” Yeah, well, I’m standing up on my soapbox and saying, “hey, books are NOT data, they’re books.”

Now, this article stirred up lots of feelings latent in my brain since I left academia several years ago. I was a literary studies grad student at a time of flux, when “close reading” was falling out of fashion, “distant reading” was a hot new phrase, and the next big Theory of Reading was still on the horizon. And li’l ol’ me, I was just sitting there in seminars and lectures thinking, “what about just reading? What’s wrong with that?”

So what was this article that got my hackles up? Well, it focuses on the work of noted Italian literary scholar and Stanford Professor Franco Moretti, the father of “Distant Reading.” Listen, do you remember when your English professor gave you an Emily Dickinson poem and told you to dissect it like it was a bug, considering each word and rhyme in order to understand the poem’s meaning? Well, that, of course, was “close reading.” Moretti wants you to gain some perspective and, you know, get as far away from that poem as you possibly can, preferably as far as the next galaxy. That way, you’ll have a better understanding of the arc of literature, i.e. “distant reading.” As Rothman explains,

The basic idea in Moretti’s work is that, if you really want to understand literature, you can’t just read a few books or poems over and over…Instead, you have to work with hundreds or even thousands of texts at a time. By turning those books into data, and analyzing that data, you can discover facts about literature in general…these types of analyses…can show us the forest rather than the trees.

Ok, ok, STOP. Now, Rothman acknowledges that while he may not subscribe to Moretti’s thinking concerning reading, he does appreciate the spirit of the enterprise because it forces literary people to think outside of the box and acknowledge all of the books that they will never and can never read. But books, my friends, books are still not data.

Long ago, we stopped being able to read all that there was to read in the world, and the Earth kept spinning. We had to admit that our lifespans simply didn’t allow us to read (or do) all the things we wished we could. And that is why this little thing called CHOICE was invented. You have the right to choose what you want to read (literary fiction, histories, biographies, science fiction, romance, poetry, essays, etc. etc. etc.) and each book will inevitably lead you to another. Another way to think about this is to look back at those Book Riot posts about diversity in reading (for instance, this one.) Ultimately, you must choose to read books written by people who don’t look like you or think like you. The choice itself is a reflection of your desire to branch out, learn about other cultures, wrap your brain around new ways of thinking. The choice itself is a major step.

But figuratively pouring mass quantities of books into a big computer and figuring out the average title length in the 19th century or the average number of words in 18th-century novels is not reading- and seems to belittle books, to me. Now, I know it sounds like I’m comparing apples and oranges, but still. We’re still talking about the worlds and words that change us for the better.

Now, I heard Moretti speak on the campus of UW-Madison several years ago, and I was charmed. This dude is just so darn charming. And smart. And suave. But as I looked at his charts and listened to his analysis, I felt chilled. His work was interesting, but his data told me nothing about the books themselves.

For me, distant reading, like close reading and all the other critical theories that offer us different ways in to books, is just another theory of reading. But what I’ve realized, after reaching the other side of academia and launching back into reading for the fun of it, is that only you can decide how you appreciate reading. Ultimately, though, reading is the act of running your eyes across the page and processing the words into images, sounds, feelings, and ideas. We talk to each other about books, we read passages out loud to one another. We lovingly arrange books on shelves or in piles. We download hundreds of them onto our devices. And we immerse ourselves in the stories they tell. So don’t talk to me about data, Franco, my dear. I simply don’t want to hear about it. I’m busy reading.

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