Quantitative Analysis is a scientific approach to understanding literature by treating the words in the text as data. As opposed to close reading, like we’ve been doing all year, Franco Moretti advocates “distant reading”. He argues that since no one person can truly understand and identify patterns between vast amounts of literature, readers should employ various computer programs. These programs analyze and compare various texts and are able to decipher categories such as genre through patterns that a reader would never be able to do, such as the prevalence of specific words.
As an example of distant reading, I selected Robert Frost’s first book of poems, “A Boy’s Will”, published in 1913. I chose Frost not only because there are so many great examples of his work but also because of his method of recycling words throughout the course of his poetry and the variety of uses and definitions attributed to them. On the website Wordle, which evaluates various writings and artistically portrays the repetition of words in the works, I imputed the entire book of Frost’s poems.
As you can see, the word that is used the most is “one”. I then searched the word “one” on Google Ngrams, a website that displays the popularity of words in the collective works of Google Books, spanning from 1500-2000. The word “one” was a bit of a roller coaster up until 1800 but then steadily became more popular until peaking about the time that this book was published.
The pitfall of “distant reading” is that not only is the reader limited by the amount of literature/data they are using but there can be inaccuracy when relying on it to identify literature. The next most commonly used word in our Wordle is “love”, a very popular word in the English language so you would expect it to be consistently popular in Ngrams, but take a look:
We see that not only did the word not really start to be used in our catalog of Google Books until about 1570, but has really fallen out of favor since the 1700’s. While the word “love” was certainly used during Frost’s time, we would be inclined to say that this book was most likely published between 1580 and 1680, we could even go so far as to narrow the years down to 1671-1674, when the word peaked in popularity. So while I believe that the idea of “distant reading” is very interesting and should certainly be explored as a possible method, but I believe that readers may not yet be able to use this tool effectively in the course of trying to understand a work of literature.