Data analysis of Literature

Nice New York Times article by Jennifer Schluessler.  Data analysis of texts is fun and informative.  But “close reading” will always remain the primary tool for discussing and interpreting a literary text.  The attention to particular phrasing and using novel arrangements of words is what makes a work literary, rather than simple describing and telling.  A “Lucas Critique” applies here as well: as authors themselves learn from the data analysis of texts, they adapt their choices of words.  Once the World Bank finds out how many “and” their documents contain, they go “and” hunting, and then you get shorter sentences.  The changes in syntax emerge after the data analysis.  Future analysts, in order to understand the evolution of style, will have to take into account trends in data analysis as well as trends in literary criticism.

The history of literary criticism is filled with would-be revolutionaries. But few have issued as radical a cry as Franco Moretti, the professor famous for urging his colleagues to stop reading books.Most literary criticism is grounded in close reading, with scholars poring over individual texts to tease out subtle meanings. But to truly grasp the laws of literature, Mr. Moretti has argued in a series of polemics, requires “distant reading”: the computer-assisted crunching of thousands of texts at a time. It’s a pie-in-the-sky idea, perhaps, but one that Mr. Moretti has put into practice. Since 2010, Stanford Literary Lab, which he founded with Matthew Jockers, has issued a string of pamphlets chronicling its research into topics ranging from loudness in the 19th-century novel to the evolving language of World Bank reports.

HT: Kirstyn Leuner

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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