Measuring the Victorians

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Measuring the Victorians

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1LauraJSnyder
Dez 4, 2010, 3:08 pm

I'm wondering what everyone here thinks about the story in today's New York Times (12/4/11) about the researchers who have put together a database of the titles of every work published in England during the "long 19th century"--all 1,681,161 of them. It is now possible to search for particular terms and statistically analyze their appearances. This will clearly influence scholarship on the Victorian period. Will this be for the better, or the worse, do you think?

2fannyprice
Dez 5, 2010, 12:07 pm

I read the same article. I think it's certainly an interesting idea, but I think the whole endeavor has got to be taken with a grain of salt. I loved how one researcher was talking about how she got really excited when she saw that there were so many instances of the terms "syntax" and "prosody" (on which she was doing research), only to realize that it was because these were the names of popular racehorses!

I also think this point is great: "Scholars should also remember that the past contains more than the written record, Mr. Bevis said in an interview. Fewer references to a subject do not necessarily mean that it has disappeared from the culture, but rather that it has become such a part of the fabric of life that it no longer arouses discussion."

I think certainly it a great resource to have these texts easily accessible. I just hope that the research done is a bit more sophisticated than merely counting instances of the word "cheese" and deciding that the word's presence or absence reveals something deep about the Victorian psyche.

Here's the link for anyone interested: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/04/books/04victorian.html?_r=1&ref=books

3TheoClarke
Dez 5, 2010, 1:14 pm

Doesn't a frequency distribution of the word "cheese" over time show the changing newsworthiness of cheese? Although, on reflection, it only shows us something about the signifier 'cheese' and we cannot be at all certain about the signified cheese. (Hmmm...I think that I may have just paraphrased fannyprice.)

4LauraJSnyder
Dez 5, 2010, 6:14 pm

Yes, I loved that part about Syntax, too! I think this kind of statistical analysis is a tool that can be useful in a way, but only as one tool of many, and only when the "data" is considered in a carefully studied context (like the horse-racing one!). Otherwise, you end up with the usual problem of "lies, damn lies, and statistics."

5ElizabethPotter
Editado: Dez 12, 2010, 4:40 pm

Thank you fannyprice for the link.

Two things stuck, both of which the article discussed. This tool gives people the ability to look at the numbers, but didn't Dickens have a villian who spoke of "just the facts?" We could consider these numbers "the facts" of the printed word in this time period.

Second, and not unrelated, these numbers don't touch on the soul of the work. So a novel mentions "love" 100 times and "God" 83, but it doesn't give us the meaning of these words. The final idea might be that love is ridiculous. Anyone who uses an index knows that some references to words have very little to do with the topic they want to know about. Such tallying becomes more difficult in fiction or poetry.

One still must read the work to understand it, and be able to speak with authority.

6Booksloth
Jan 5, 2011, 7:34 am

Interesting stuff and thanks for the link fannyprice. My doubts crept in even before I'd got through the first paragraph. This is study of books published 'in and around the 19th century'? That 'around' turns it into a pretty arbitrary study right from the start; are they studying 19th century literature or massaging the statistics by including other books that appear to prove whatever theories they plan to present?

As everyone else seems to agree so far, while this might eventually be helpful (or not) for those searching the literature, it tells us more or less nothing about the books. A study into the proximity of words might be the next thing and might prove slightly more helpful but concentrating on the words that appear in a book tells us nothing about the book itself and can only be useful as an addition to proper reading of the texts. You don't study the scale and then think you know all about Mozart. At which point, I can't help but rememer the very old comment by Eric Morecambe (US Readers may not have a clue who I'm talking about) when told by Andre Previn that he was playing "all the wrong notes" to Grieg. His reply was "No, I'm playing all the right notes. Just not necessarily in the right order."