Distant Reading

By Maria Reyes

In Graphs, Maps, and Trees, Franco Moretti calls for distant reading and a combination of multiple disciplines to replace close reading, arguing there are too many works to focus solely on those in the literary canon. In defense of his proposal he writes

the study of national bibliographies made me realize what a minimal fraction of the literary field we all work on: a canon of two hundred novels, for instance, sounds very large for nineteenth-century Britain (and is much larger than the current one), but is still less than one per cent of the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knows—and close reading won’t help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so . . . And then, 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—and the graphs that follow are one way to begin doing this. (67-68)

Moretti believes there is not enough time to closely read each novel or literary work. Instead, the field should superficially read works and use data collection and analysis to analyze works, finding trends, similarities, and insights accordingly. One of the largest benefits of using data collection and analysis in English is it allows the field to work with a larger sample size of literary pieces. However, it has been argued the methodization  causes the discipline to lose its charm and become less personal and more concrete.

Below is an example of a story map of Candide’s journey in Voltaire’s famous novel:



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *