For as long as anyone can remember, the basic task of literary scholarship has been close reading. Sit down with a book, pencil in hand, read, pay attention — and then tell the world what you noticed.
Franco Moretti, however, often doesn’t read the books he studies. Instead, he analyzes them as data. Working with a small group of graduate students, the Stanford University English professor has fed thousands of digitized texts into databases and then mined the accumulated information for new answers to new questions. How far, on average, do characters in 19th-century English novels walk over the course of a book? How frequently are new genres of popular fiction invented? How many words does the average novel’s protagonist speak? By posing these and other questions, Moretti has become the unofficial leader of a new, more quantitative kind of literary study.
To many readers — and to some of Moretti’s fellow academics — the very notion of quantitative literary studies can seem like an offense to that which made literature worth studying in the first place: its meaning and beauty. For Moretti, however, moving literary scholarship beyond reading is the key to producing new knowledge about old texts — even ones we’ve been studying for centuries. . . .