Going Google

[Franco Moretti] has pointed out that the 19-century British heyday of Dickens and Austen, for example, saw the publication of perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 novels—the huge majority of which are never studied.

The problem with this “great unread” is that no human can sift through it all. “It just puts out of work most of the tools that we have developed in, what, 150 years of literary theory and criticism,” Mr. Moretti says. “We have to replace them with something else.”

I’m not convinced that quantitative, data-mining analysis is the “something else” needed to unearth the Great Unread of 19th century British literature. Nonetheless, Mr. Moretti and his co-hort make a number of arguments in favor of that approach in this blog post at marcparry.org. The preceding quote is the crux of their ethos, though. They argue that there is simply too much information for individual literary scholars to research. Therefore, using Google Books and quantitative analysis helps resolve this problem by providing a way to study these thousands of texts that would otherwise get the short end of the stick.

I agree that this quantitative analysis can show what trends were prevalent in 19th century literary circles in Great Britain. However, I believe quantity doesn’t always provide a meaningful analysis. Especially regarding the humanities. Maybe the majority of those non-researched books are awful literary works that justify Dickens’ reign atop the 19th century literary pile. Asking Google to search books for specific words or trends doesn’t present the true quality or importance of the work.

To further illustrate the discrepancy between quantity and quality at work, consider basketball-reference.com. They have a search and filtering function that can let you suss out what players achieved what statistical feats and when. However, it’s pitfall is that it only shows the stats. How those stats were produced doesn’t get answered. The context, feel, and meaning of the stats is sorely missing. Seeing Warren Jabali’s stats shows he was a good player, but doesn’t show how he played.

Terry Pluto’s magnificent book, Loose Balls, recalls that Jabali was barely six feet tall, but was one of the most feared players in the ABA since he had a devilish mean streak. What is further lost is the kind of person Jabali actually was, especially off the court. He’s someone who spent the second half of his life dedicated to using basketball as a way to steer young men from lives of drug addiction and criminal behavior.

No basketball-reference database search could ever really show this side of Jabali because it is only concerned with aggregating data, not necessarily the human element.

Ultimately, that’s why I find Mr. Moretti’s Google gambit to be superficial. It’s a nice tool to discern trends, but it is hard-pressed to show how or why these trends developed. Maybe you can see an author says a particular word a particular amount of times, but you still don’t know the circumstances that author was born and bred in. You don’t know what circumstances the author was mired in as his work was being written. None of the human element is known unless you actually investigate the person and not their numbers, aggregates or trends.

Someone still has to individually investigate the books of the Great Unread.

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