Literary Reading in Decline
Posted 15 March 2013 - 11:33 AM
Posted 08 September 2013 - 10:46 PM
Dunno that this fits here, exactly, but it's as good a place as any (I feel like we have a number of threads that overlap each other)
“How to read” is no longer an unspoken creed for the discipline but a set of fighting words, as new digital techniques for data mining large bodies of texts and new, cognitive scientific propositions about the nature and experience of reading inject unsettling questions and (to some) unsightly applications. Furthermore, increased awareness of the long provincialism of a Eurocentric focus has engendered a sense of wonder (and at times near paralysis) at how reliant the standard categories of literary analysis—genre, form, taste, and their interrelations—are on a relatively small corner of the globe. While things may not fall apart, the fallout of these mostly intra-academic debates promises to irradiate the broader literary culture just as thoroughly as the dominance of the old model, close reading, has done for many decades.
[...]Moretti is also swimming against an even stronger current, one that flows not just from the academy but even from people who disdain the academy. It is a sentiment well and often expressed in Clive James’s writing (the critic, not the music mogul)—I’ll take one example from Cultural Amnesia (2007): “It would be a desirable and enviable existence just to earn a decent wage at a worthwhile job and spend all one’s leisure hours improving one’s aesthetic appreciation. There is so much to appreciate, and it is all available for peanuts. One can plausibly aspire to seeing, hearing and reading everything that matters.” Moretti and others are struggling against the weight of precisely this sentiment, this aspiration to completeness, to being “well-read.”
But what I think Moretti’s work reveals—and what is most practically relevant to our everyday lives as readers—is that this aspiration is a myth, pernicious and unnecessary. To borrow a title from the sociologist Bruno Latour, we have never been well-read; no one has.To presume that there is or ever was a possibility of being so is delusional: not a very good goal, therefore, for either academic study or personal fulfillment.
That strand, alone, interests me--but I'm equally interested in the description of Moretti's M.O. [MMO?]:
First of all, it is important to recognize that he is, in the most literal sense, inimitable. His experiments are, as he often self-effacingly confesses, one-offs, little tinkered-together bits of one and another theory soldered onto the apparatus of one or another non-traditional tool: maps, graphs, trees, network theory. What they are meant to do is fit a particular problem—understanding the plot structure of Hamlet, retracing the development of the market for novels in 18th century England, determining the importance of clues in accounting for Arthur Conan Doyle’s success—and each problem, once identified, requires an original contraption.
And then there's the penultimate paragraph:
What Moretti would have us do are two of the hardest things to attempt in an intellectual environment—academic or non-academic: admit ignorance and ask for help. New ground is better than common ground: not “I haven’t read that yet—let’s discuss something else” but rather “I may never read that, so tell me about it, it sounds interesting.” Relinquishing the vanity of believing that some personal completeness of knowledge is attainable may be the price of successful, meaningful exchanges about and real knowledge of literature in an era where the breadth and depth of culture is supra-individual, if not superhuman. We ought to learn how to enjoy and gain knowledge from the vast oceans of literature we’ll never read, and we need to learn to do that by talking with, collaborating with, learning from others.