Counting and Reading

I recently wrote a reflection piece on the relationship between quantity and reading for a new volume on “Further Reading” by Leah Price and Matthew Rubery. The collection contains a number of amazing contributions and I encourage you to have a look.

In my piece I was interested in making familiar the long history of the ways numbers and letters have been intertwined. From Augustine’s fascination with why Peter caught 153 fish to Victor Hugo’s 365 chapters of Les Misérables to ISBNs and beyond, quantity and number are intrinsic to the meaning of books. If you are interested in genealogies or narratives that move past the simple binaries that many humanists are constructing today, then you’ll find this piece interesting.

Indeed, one of the things I’ve been musing on for a long time is how a focus on data and quantity fits within a particular tradition of humanism itself. Detractors of computation will tell you it is alien to humanist thought. But as I try to gesture towards in this piece, one of the founding aspects of humanism is a focus on knowledge as a product of material and cultural difference. Translation is essential to the history of humanism and our continual movement of translating between numbers and letters is a further step in this direction.

I try to identify three consequences of enumerative reading, which I see as: reflexive, translational, and synoptic (or consensual). Enumerative reading allows us to reflect on the ways we come to know what we know through the practice of model building. Enumerative reading allows us to engage in the reflective process of translation, as we carry over meaning from one sign system to another, building more fluid and critical forms of consciousness. And enumerative reading strives for more synoptic and consensual forms of knowledge. As I write in the piece, going back to Erasmus’ program to paraphrase the Christian Gospels:

Enumerative reading is the latest inheritor of this humanistic project. With its synoptic aims, it seeks to achieve a sense of community, a “common sense,” to the act of interpre­tation.

Along the way I try to show how new models of distributional semantics can themselves be put in the service of understanding the history of reading. Here is a graphic from the piece identifying the changing semantic contexts of “reading” in novels over the past 200 years. You can read the piece for more details about the changing nature of reading in novels.

Most common words associated with forms of the word “read” in a collection of ~6,500 English-language novels.