Books and Big Data: A Rant (in GIFs)

As marketing coordinator of a supercomputer company, it’s my job to manage all of our social networking sites, post relevant industry news, and occasionally write for our blog. It just so happens that an article which a colleague of mine shared the other day is also perfect for this blog!

Let the fun begin–it’s about to get super ranty up in here! And the bonus? I’ll be accompanying all of my emotions with the ever so addictive reaction GIFs! Huzzah!

On Financial Times, John Sunyer writes, “Big data meets the Bard,” so when you’ve got Shakespeare alongside the biggest buzzword in the tech world, I’ve got to admit I’m pretty interested.

But my excitement comes to a screeching halt after reading the first sentence:

Here’s some advice for bibliophiles with teetering piles of books and not enough hours in the day: don’t read them.

Oh, I get it. This is clearly a joke! Pull the reader in with a shocking statement, then transition to the real point? Apparently not, as it gets worse:

Instead, feed the books into a computer program and make graphs, maps and charts: it is the best way to get to grips with the vastness of literature.

This must just be some computer geeks thinking of ways to get out of their literature homework, right?

That, at least, is the recommendation of Franco Moretti, a 63-year-old professor of English at Stanford University and unofficial leader of a band of academics bringing a science-fiction thrill to the science of fiction.

An English professor from Stanford is suggesting we let computers do our reading for us?!

Alright, let’s say I’ll trust this guy for a second. What sort of amazing insights has he discovered by crunching words into numbers?

Moretti takes 7,000 British novels published between 1740 and 1850 and feeds them into a computer. The results reveal that books with long titles became drastically less common during this period.

I’m sorry, I don’t need to be the head honcho at the Ivy League of the West to know that insignificant tidbit of info. But if computers can only enlighten us with this drivel, that means there’s still lots of human reading to be done?

Ryan Heuser, 27-year-old associate director for research at the Literary Lab, tells me he can’t remember the last time he read a novel. “It was probably a few years ago and it was probably a sci-fi. But I don’t think I’ve read any fiction since I’ve been involved with the lab.”

So he works at the Literary Lab, but he hasn’t read a book in years?! Please tell me that novelists everywhere are writing angry letters to these so-called researchers!

“My impression is that Moretti is a passionate and astute scholar,” the novelist Jonathan Franzen tells me. “I doubt it is his aim to put novelists and novel readers out of business.”

Et tu, Franzen? But if that is his aim, I will cut him.

So what does Moretti and his buddies have to say for themselves after filling book lovers like me with rage?

Moretti is used to defending his work. “I’ve received so much shit for the quantitative stuff,” he admits.

As Jockers says: “Literary scholars have traditionally had to defend their worth against those working in the sciences. Yet now that literature is beginning to reek of science, there’s a knee-jerk reaction against it. We can’t win. There’s an endless battle between the disciplines. I’m still repeatedly accused of ‘taking the human out of humanities’.”

For once, they speak the truth: they are indeed “taking the human out of humanities.” They have managed to take literary criticism, one of the most debated, subjective, personal fields of study, and mangle it into a sterile, soulless profession. By trying to turn art into a science, they have lost the essence of the art itself.

And with that, I bid you good day, you book traitors!

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