Published online by Cambridge University Press: 23 October 2020
Reading Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, Trees as a late-stage graduate student in 2008 was invigorating. Here was an approach to literary history free from the pieties of close reading, committed to empiricism, seeking to fulfill, with its “materialist conception of form,” the promise of the sociology of literature (92). And, at the time, it seemed natural that the way to follow the path laid out by Moretti in Graphs and in the essays he had published over the previous decade was to go to my computer, polish my rusty programming skills, and start making graphs. Yet reconsidering Moretti's Distant Reading now, one is struck by how nondigital the book is. In fact, the meaning of distant reading has undergone a rapid semantic transformation. In “Conjectures on World Literature,” originally published in 2000, Moretti introduces the phrase to describe “a patchwork of other people's research, without a single direct textual reading” (Distant Reading 48). Today, however, distant reading typically refers to computational studies of text. Introducing a 2016 cluster of essays called “Text Analysis at Scale,” Matthew K. Gold and Lauren Klein employ the term to speak of “using digital tools to ‘read’ large swaths of text” (Introduction); in his contribution to the cluster, Ted Underwood embraces “distant reading” as a name for applying machine-learning techniques to unstructured text. Discussions of distant reading have become discussions of computation with text, even if no section of Distant Reading features the elaborate computations found in the Stanford Literary Lab pamphlets to which Moretti has contributed.