Goodbye Reading I Say Hello

The Future of Books

We have spent eleven weeks now dabbling in the Digital Humanities. We have mined, mapped and modelled our way through Modernism.  We have wrangled endlessly with Omeka, and often also each other (for if there is one thing that I forgot in three years of undergraduate literary academia and that the digital humanities have brought home to me, it is that group dynamics exist, and they are important.  Not easy, but important.)  We have blogged laboriously (most) weekends, and this will be my final post of the semester.

Towards the end of this course, our tutor asked us: ‘Do you think people will ever stop reading?’ (In context, I think she meant ‘close reading’.) A most daunting question.  Indeed, much of what we have learnt has tended to pit distant reading against close reading, networks against linear narratives, the .txtual against the textual.  The former, we have been told repeatedly, is the future.  The latter is hegemonic/structuralist/an outdated business model/etc.  ‘The relevant text is no longer the New Critical “poem [text] itself”,’ writes Alan Liu, ‘but instead the digital humanities archive, corpus, or network’. Even today this is a hard pill to swallow, for me and every other young literature graduate of my generation who was raised in the shade of New Criticism, taught to highlight key quotes and pencil annotations in the margins.  To be taught that close reading is ‘quintessentially literary’, ‘the essence of the disciplinary identity’, as Katherine Hayles puts it (63) – and then to suddenly be told no, scrap that, that’s now irrelevant? It’s terrifying.

The idea that people could ever stop reading seems to be what has traditional academia so up in arms against digital scholarship.  (That, and the idea that one day we might lose our jobs to robots who can read all the Victorian three-deckers we never got round to finishing.)   To go digital, it seems, threatens to remove the ‘human’ from the humanities, to grind the great classics of the Western canon into homogeneous data.  ‘Literature cannot meaningfully be treated as data,’ argues Stephen Marche. ‘The problem is essential rather than superficial: literature is not data. Literature is the opposite of data.’

That, of course, depends on what you think ‘data’ is. As Natalia Cecire has tweeted in response: ‘Almost nothing in the world IS data. “Data” is an abstraction we use to make certain kinds of inquiry possible.’ Data, to begin with, is not the be-all and end-all of digital methods; I would hardly dare presume to describe what we are doing in The Project as handling data of any real magnitude, yet it is still rather digital (or at least we hope so).  Data does not remove ‘history’, as Marche claims it does; in fact, it can give formative shape to historical trends in a way that close reading often fails to do.  Marche is almost right in his accusation that data takes away ‘taste’ and ‘refinement’ (I say almost, because as Kate Crawford points out, data is never absolutely neutral). Yet this is actually what I find to be one of the potentially nice things about data, for the refinement and taste of the few have made of the canon a fetish.  ‘All great theories of the novel have precisely reduced the novel to one basic form only,’ writes Franco Moretti.  ‘If the reduction has given them their elegance and power, it has erased nine-tenths of literary history.  Too much.’  (30)

Above all, data still needs to be read.  By humans.  We are never going to build a super-computer that will give us the answer to literature, the universe and everything.  That way lies madness (and probably the number 42).

So I believe in data, but I also refuse to throw close reading out with the bathwater.  The distinction between the two is largely ideological and increasingly coded with academic jingoism, but the two ought to exist in juxtaposition, not in antagonism, within the discipline, and perhaps within the same projects. Close reading could benefit from the perspectival shifts that the politics of distance promise; distant reading will never fully replace appreciation of the texts from which it is derived, but rather enhance it.  And the digital humanities needs both.

And no, we will never stop reading.  We came here because we want to read.  Locked in the ivory towers of old academia or lost in the forests of digital data, we will still be reading.  Of that at least, I think, we need have no fear.

The title image is ‘The Future of Books’, a hand-carved book/laptop hybrid model by Kyle Bean that blends the digital with the textual to illustrate the future of reading.

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