Lit 80, Fall 2013
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Literature as data?

October 3rd, 2013 | Posted by Sheel Patel in Uncategorized

The question of literature being data brings up a lot of controversy depending on who you ask. To answer this question, one must define what data is. Data does not really have a set definition, and can vary depending on what kind of data you are talking about. In terms of data being a quantitative set of points that can be analyzed, I argue that everything is data. Therefore literature is data. But I don’t believe that treating literature as data is ‘the end of the book as we know it’ as Stephen Marche believes. Treating literature as data, or distant reading literature and other forms of writing adds to  the experience one can attain from reading. But distant reading and treating literature as data is completely optional, a practice that one can abstain from if they chose. In that way, books can have a multidimensional character to them that can allow a literary scholar to simply analyze the text of a novel, while a digital scholar could analyze the word count and frequency of that same novel. Both people could come to significantly different conclusions of the meaning of the novel, but this just adds to the creativity the author put into it rather than taking away anything. Distant reading and treating literature as data can only add to the experience of reading, and can give us a grasp of ideas that could not have been discovered with just human brainpower. Tools like Google N-Gram, or text analysis of ‘JK Rowling’ novels use the idea of distant reading and the data in literature to elucidate complex patterns that show real meanings. Projects like these, especially Google N-Gram, augment scholarship by analyzing sets of data that are so large and impossible for one person or even universities of people to analyze by themselves. Through digitizing and searching over 6% of all literature ever published, N-Gram gives us insights into times of history when record-keeping only took place in literature. It allows us a holistic insight into periods of history, that could only be achieved in the past by reading as many books from that time as possible. Now we have libraries upon libraries at our finger tips.

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