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Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsWhen the Italian literary scholar Franco Moretti

Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondspublished his slim book Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History in 2005, this created quite a stir among literary scholars. And it created quite a stir because Moretti called upon people like myself to abandon the practice they're most used to - namely, close reading. Instead of embarking on painstaking analysis of the semantic and syntactic intricacies of single literary texts, Moretti called upon people like myself to mine huge databases that contain thousands of literary texts to identify recurring patterns and large-scale historical developments across national borders and over whole centuries. One such database that Moretti and his fellow researchers used and that you can use is Google's Ngram database.

Skip to 1 minute and 13 secondsNow, Moretti gives us graphs such as this one, which chart the number of new epistolary, gothic, and historical novels published each year over a century and 10 years from 1740 to 1850. Among other things, this map shows that genres emerge and disappear in waves. First, we have the epistolary wave, then the Gothic wave, then the historical wave. What this map also shows us is the great popularity of epistolary novels - that is novels composed entirely of letters from the mid 18th century onward - and their rapid decline toward the closing of the 18th century. Moretti also gives us maps such as this one.

Skip to 2 minutes and 9 secondsThis one shows the names of male protagonists of novels set in Paris and the women or objects these male protagonists desire, here marked by stars. This map leads us to conclude that the men and the women live in different social worlds. The men live in the intellectual and artistic world of the left banks or the bottom right corner on the map, and the women live either in the commercial, wealthier world of the right bank - that's the top part of the map, northward up the River Seine - or in the elite world with a long aristocratic history of Faubourg St. Germain, the left bottom part of the map. And Moretti also gives us trees, such as this one.

Skip to 3 minutes and 7 secondsThis tree shows the development of free indirect style, a specific way of rendering a fictional character's speech or thoughts where the narrator speaks in the third person, but we can still clearly hear the character's own idiom and tone. So with free indirect style, we have a strange mixture of the narrator's voice and the character's voice. And this tree shows that free indirect style emerged in the German literature of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe and the English literature of Jane Austen to branch off into the literatures of other nations, such as Russia, where free indirect style would give expression less to a character's social conformity than to their struggle with societal conventions.

Skip to 4 minutes and 1 secondAnd the tree takes us from 1800 to 2000, over 200 years. But why should we embark on such quantitative analyses, and what are the graphs, maps, and trees good for? In his book Graphs, Maps, Trees and in his 2013 volume Distant Reading, Moretti gives three main arguments for distant reading. Let's start with the first. The first argument is this. Instead of embarking on what the writer Marc Bloch has called "years of analysis for a day of synthesis", instead of, in other words, embarking on close readings of the semantic and syntactic intricacies of single individual literary texts, literary scholars can now use the large databases at hand, scan thousands of literary texts, and identify recurring patterns and large scale historical developments.

Skip to 5 minutes and 8 secondsThe second main argument that Moretti gives for distant reading is that traditional literary scholars tend

Skip to 5 minutes and 17 secondsto focus on a rather narrow selection of literary texts: texts written by authors considered as great authors that are well established. You know, Goethe, Shakespeare, Melville, Balzac - all dead, white males. And distant reading, by analysing thousands of literary texts, promises to pry open the canon to also include largely forgotten works of literature. The third and final reason for distant reading is its promise of greater objectivity. Traditional literary scholarship tends to be subjective in the end, shaped by the literary scholar's own norms, values, and prejudices. But by using the methods from the social sciences and the natural sciences and by embarking on quantitative analysis of big data, distant reading promises to give us greater objectivity and greater comprehensiveness.

Skip to 6 minutes and 29 secondsAnd for all these reasons, Moretti is ready to make what he himself calls "a little pack with the devil."

Skip to 6 minutes and 38 secondsIn his own words: "what we really need is a little pack with the devil. We know how to read texts. Now let's learn how not to read them."

What is distant reading?

Distant reading refers to a professional reading method that relies heavily on computer programs. This strategy, developed by Franco Moretti, represents an attempt at utilizing big data analytics for the purposes of literary scholarship.

Watch Philipp Schweighauser explain why this quantitative technique can be considered revolutionary as a scholarly method.

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This video is from the free online course:

Reading Literature in the Digital Age

University of Basel

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