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I'm in the midst of preparing another of this year's endless series of presentations, but I thought I'd take a short break in my preparation to address Lindsay Waters' latest offering for the Chronicle. I'd link to "Time for Reading," but the CHE has it firewalled currently. Pretty soon, Waters is going to deserve his own category if I'm not careful.

At any rate, I thought I'd respond chiefly because it will be entirely possible for a member of my upcoming audience to raise a hand and ask whether or not I've read this piece and what my response to it is. You see, in this essay, Waters criticizes the work of Franco Moretti among other things. Moretti is guilty by association with, among other things, fast capitalism, the sinister forces of bureaucracy, speed reading, Cliffs Notes, and in a slightly bizarre reading, outsourcing:

But Moretti is now promoting what he calls "distant reading," which seems to me to suggest that scholars of literature outsource reading of books to lower-level workers.

Lest we think it a momentary metaphor, Waters continues it later, faux-apologizing for running the "risk of sounding like the commentator Lou Dobbs going on about outsourcing jobs." You see, this kind of outsourcing "is more dangerous in the long run. It's like killing the plankton in the ocean."

Umm. Okay. Waters objects to Moretti's efforts to tabulate data across centuries and countries and languages, a collation of data that might provide us with broad-scale insight into the rise and fall of particular genres or literary strategies. Fair enough. But it's odd to see this work contrasted with his earlier "superb analyses of literary works," when you actually go to the bother of reading a book like Signs Taken For Wonders. STW analyses literary works, yes, but it does so under the sign of rhetoric, viewing literature not simply as a triumph of linguistic and aesthetic expression, but as strategic interventions into culture. The former would be the "wonders" and the latter "signs." At no point in Moretti's work have I personally detected the assumption, which seems to underlie Waters' contempt, that Moretti is arguing for signs at the expense of wonders.

Waters is clearly hostile to Moretti's work, and in such a case, one might justly assume that such criticism deserves some sort of evidence. In an essay where Waters attacks the notion of distant reading, the apprehension of literary work through the distillation of that work into themes or keywords, the only citation of Moretti's work that appears is a parenthetical reference to the subtitle of a talk that Moretti delivered in Germany: "How to Talk About Literature Without Ever Reading a Single Book." Yes, that's right. A subtitle. The parenthesis is preceded by the mock-horror of Waters' characterization of Moretti: "What we need to understand is the system. The professor need not read books at all!" Apparently, the critic need not actually attend the talk to know that the subtitle "says it all," either.

Am I getting a little snippy? Perhaps. Perhaps it's the irony of Waters' own distant reading getting under my skin. Anyhow, he continues:

It is impossible to understand the rationale for such a relegation of reading to graphs and charts except as a way of institutionalizing large-scale bureaucratic analysis of literature. That is poison.

There's an invitation to dialogue for you. But here's my attempt. If you read Steven Johnson's Ghost Map, you'll learn the story of John Snow and the Reverend Henry Whitehead. What's cool about the story is that the two of them approached the problem of cholera from different scales of activity, and each played an invaluable role in changing the way society understood that disease. Whitehead knew the people of Soho in the same way that Waters here urges us to understand literature, by taking interest in and savoring individual words, lives, texts, events, at ground level as it were. Snow, on the other hand, approached the problem from the large-scale analysis of death records plotted against location plotted against London's various water suppliers. He used the same methods that made him London's premier anaesthesiologist, the relentless gathering and interpretation of data. And at one point, it is not difficult to imagine Whitehead making the exact same objection to the work of Snow--at one point, he argues that it is impossible to understand people's lives by looking at charts and maps. Whitehead's convictions play an important role in confirming Snow's hypothesis, eventually, and the "felicity of scale" that blends the two men's work is, for me, one of the most interesting and important points of Johnson's book.

This proves nothing, but it suggests that a difference of opinion, mapped across what is instead a difference in scale, might not be a difference at all. Another point I'd raise about STW, and that's that its subtitle is "Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms." And there's a strong case to be made that Moretti should be read not alongside other literary scholars, but with others working in the sociology of knowledge, those same writers (Merton, Urban, Collins, Abbott, et al.) that Waters takes Stevens and Williams to task for ignoring. This critique of Moretti, honestly, feels more like a category error than anything else, poison, plankton, and outsourcing aside.

The problem with reading and literary studies is not and never will be the work of Moretti or speed reading. The problem that Waters never really discusses is that the kind of literary experience he advocates is fundamentally incompatible with the institutional demands that are politically expedient right now. I love reading, but schooling did its best to beat it out of me. And it's far worse now than it ever has been. You can't test for love. But you can sure test a love for reading out of us. The "graphs and numbers" that Waters should be railing against are the ones generated annually by the national testing oligopoly, not the products of a single research team at Stanford.

So if someone raises hir hand on Friday, to ask me about Waters' assault on Moretti, that's my answer. At its very best, the inclusion of Moretti here is misdirection, a strangely distant read of the situation.

That's what I got. Light blogging over the next few, most likely.


I'm wanting to go back to the Moretti essays in NLR of a year or so ago, but the PDFs of them seem to be down, and I cannot locate a single issue of NLR in the house. (I'm fearing they met their maker in one of my ill-advised Purges of Stuff, aka Spring Cleaning.) Anyhow, I read only one of those essays, not enough to get a real sense of his arguments. And this post is adding more fuel to my sense that I should get that sense. I'm no longer a Chronicle subscriber, so I'll have to wait for the firewalled Waters toe-tapper to make it to the library databases. It does sound, though, as if he would be horrified by the recommendations I made about reading a while back.

& finally, thanks for your conclusion. I share your experience of (a) loving reading and (b) having it all but strangled out of me by my education, which was entirely through--wait for it--New Criticism.

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