The History and Future of Reading

This is a provisional description of a graduate course I’ll offer in the Department of English in Spring 2018. For details and updates, contact me.

The history of reading begins with the invention of written language and culminates, like all histories, in the present — in the seminar room of this course, among other places. Here we will study that history and the theorizations of reading practices, and consider how cultural and material circumstances have influenced historical readers. And we will see the present and future of reading as equally subject to our own intellectual habits and technologies. But we will also examine our practices of reading two novels in 18 — novels from the 1760s and the 1990s. Both are “thick with the presence of other books” (in A.S. Byatt’s words), and with an awareness of their own status as books, of both the limits and potential of written language.

We read today in an age of abundance, when Google Books offers searchable access to 12 million books in 300 languages (so far). Digital tools help us navigate and analyze these texts quickly, but human expertise must apply qualitative judgement to all of this quantitative data. This course will explore the possibilities and limitations of what Stephen Ramsay calls “algorithmic criticism,” or the use of computers to ask empirical questions of texts, and to visualize their linguistic features using word trees, heat maps, and other deformations. Ramsay has addressed the limitations of this criticism, which aims “not to constrain meaning, but to guarantee its multiplicity.” To this end, the course aims primarily to teach and to theorize a critical toolkit, and to understand how it originates in or differs from past reading and interpretive practices.

Provisional Reading List:

Critics

  • Matthew Jockers, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (2013)
  • Stephen Ramsay, Reading Machines (2011)
  • Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for A Literary History (2005)
  • Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, This is Not the End of the Book
  • The Institute for the Future of the Book (www.futureofthebook.org)
  • Hugh McGuire and Brian O’Leary, eds. Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto (2011)

Novels

  • Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
  • A. S. Byatt, Possession: A Romance

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