At Stanford, literary scholar and marxist critic Franco Moretti proposes a radical plan for English departments: less reading, more computing. With an ocean of texts yet to be studied, literary-historians must, Moretti argues, adopt the methods of quantitative history, geography, and evolutionary theory. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History (2005) frames the problem in layman’s terms: The whole canon of the nineteenth century British novelabout two hundred titles, Moretti estimates
is still less than one per cent of the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knowsand close reading won’t help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so. . . . And it’s not even a matter of time, but of method: a field this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases, because it isn’t a sum of individual cases: it’s a collective system, that should be grasped as such, as a whole.
To grasp this collective system, Moretti calls for a “quantitative approach to literature”hence the graphs, maps, and treeswhich will “widen the domain of the literary historian” and deal in data “ideally independent of interpretations.” Moretti calls this approach “distant reading,” a method of “deliberate reduction and abstraction” which yields historical patterns through artificial constructs. Moretti hopes emerging literary labs can collect and share data and create a new quarry for the digital humanities, a future heretofore unimagined in literary scholarship: namely, research without close-reading.
With “distant reading,” Marshall McLuhan’s prophecy of postliteracy grows ever more plausible: All the toil and moil of book learning will be engineered away; attentive, contemplative reading will no longer be desirable or necessary. Today even the literati are going postliterate; even the English department is questioning its imaginative endeavor as Poesie is pooled, plotted, and datamined.
Another response to the information overload is the movement for transliteracy, the quest to acquire proficiency in all proliferating media, to raise a new generation fluent in many modes of oral, print, and digital communication. This second camp envisions itself in an age of digital Darwinism: “Know your textual environment,” it enjoins the world; “adapt or die.”
This is part of the mission of the Common Core, which seeks to “lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century,” to provide “the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally.” The result is a mixed curriculum: The Standards demand students digest both literary and informational piecesa spoonful of National Geographic with their Northanger Abbey, a little Wired with their Winter’s Tale.
What to make of all this? While there are significant differences between postliteracy and transliteracy, we note that both cope with the information problem through analysis. One faction abstracts texts and manipulates quantitative models; the other taxonomizes and dissects rhetoric. In either case, we are talking about a science, a set of new analytic tools for information management and survival.
Here is a rather unfashionable thought: Perhaps analysis is not the summum bonum of reading. Perhaps the remedy isn’t more critical thinking. While analysis aids us in breaking down a text into its mechanical, interlocking parts, analysis alone cannot relate literary experience to life. That good comes a different way, through a moral (or dare we say, religious) mode of thought. As David Hicks has observed, it is “normative inquiry, not analysis,” which “renders experience valuable to mankind. . . . In the study of arts and letters, normative inquiry must precede and sustain analysis.”
Still, in our age of postliteracy and transliteracy, educators remain consumed with the analytical, descriptive questions of what is or seems and forget prescriptive inquiry into what ought to be, the questions that calibrate the heart’s moral compass and provide a way of integrating wisdom with experience. Ironically, while the former may enable us to float in the digital deluge, only the latter apprehends a world beyond the storm, an olive branch sent from somewhere better we may yet arrive.
The analytical and the normative are meant to be married. When analysis and normative inquiry are sunderedwhen, in Wordsworth’s phrase, “we murder to dissect”analysis itself dies. Flannery O’Connor observed that, for the novelist, “judgment is implicit in the act of seeing,” that “vision cannot be detached from his moral sense.” Perhaps the same could be said of the reader (the good reader, anyway): The transcendental goods, the fundamental questions of ought, are not only relevant to our work of reading, but the very rain that nourishes all fields of worthwhile study.
Josh Mayo is a Ph.D. student in literature at the University of Dallas.
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