Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt

What can we understand about literature through numbers? Quite a bit, it turns out. In 1963, for example, statisticians Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace settled a long-standing historical debate, using statistical techniques to ascribe authorship to 12 essays from The Federalist Papers to James Madison, rather than Alexander Hamilton (who also claimed to have written them) . With a convincing analysis of the two writers’ go-to connective phrases, Mosteller and Wallace solved a literary problem, simply by counting. Recently, a growing body of literary criticism has deployed statistical methods, mapping tools, and innovative graphics to reveal patterns in literature. These methods—what literary critic Franco Moretti dubbed “distant reading”—are not universally celebrated. Quantitative approaches tend to ruffle critics who prize “close reading,” or intensive analysis of small selections of text, a practice that continues to center literary studies. Imaginative attention to the particularities of a literary text falls to the wayside when we zoom out to look at broader, statistical patterns. Literature’s transformative powers get swallowed by numbers. Or so the argument goes. This argument isn’t entirely wrong. But accepting it wholesale would be a great loss for anyone who cares about literature. Distant reading has been around for a […]

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