Nearly twenty years ago, a woman who has consistently taught history at third level in Ireland surprised me by saying that she never bought history books. Her reasoning was that she anticipated that she would have to move frequently in order to have employment and it is not possible to carry half-dozen bookcases on one’s back. I did not acquire employment or, in turn, a move but I did acquire half-dozen bookcases of books that surprise me every time I look at them because many I do not actually recall reading: most are books that were picked up for the sake of a half-dozen references therein, not because they were a “cover-to-cover” worthwhile read, and, indeed, if one was to read them all cover-to-cover that would be an exercise that would probably take more than one lifetime to complete.
Rather that saying “how did I get into this ridiculous mess” I am inclined to see this situation as akin to the phenomenon of “distance reading” that is central to much digital humanities scholarship. One could stare at a bookcase and hope that, by some kind of process of osmosis, their contents will be absorbed mentally somehow, but that will not necessarily work. What digital humanities scholars do, however, is feed all the books…provided there are appropriate electronic editions in existence…into software that processes the text for you. Early attempts could be said to have produced slightly amusing results. For instance, somebody fed the complete works of William Shakespeare into processing software that produced as a factual analysis that the most common reference and, therefore, the most significant concept within the writings and worldview of Shakespeare is the word “the”. So, next time the thought crosses your mind (if for any reason it ever does cross one’s mind) what sense one has of the works of William Shakespeare, all you need tell yourself is if you are familiar with the word “the” then you know all that there is to know.
That might seem funny, or absurd, but it does reflect a trend in society, whereby word-clouds of the most frequently occurring words are used as shorthand visualisations to give one a picture of particularly broad matters with just one glance. “Yes”. “No”. “Awesome”.
The origins of this trend stem from the sheer volume of print and information (of one kind or another) that now exists in the world. By the 1950s, some governments had started to realise that the amount of clerical paper work they were producing in a single year actually surpassed the complete amount of surviving paper work that exists from the dawn of time until just one year previously. So the idea that there is simply “too much information in existence for a person to process it” is actually quite an old one. Yes, the “cupboards with blinking lights” in all those 1960s TV shows also used distance-reading techniques, at least in the imagination. Today, data analysts are “the real McCoy”.
For whatever reason, the nineteenth century is the era that first stimulated my historical imagination. This was possibly because of some instinctive identification with the romanticist sensibilities of the era. You know: if someone drew a painting (or, later a photo) of an individual who is simultaneously both observing and absorbed in the natural world, there is something inherently worthwhile about that. Likewise, if an individual rebelled about society, like the Count of Monte Cristo or something, then there is probably something intrinsically worthwhile, or even reasonable, about that too. But, of course, as per the old ‘War and Peace’ joke, nineteenth-century books could be particularly long. And guess what? That is why the literature of the nineteenth century is being given the ‘computerised Shakespeare distance reading’ treatment too, potentially with some interesting analytical results although the process is clearly totally divorced from the romanticist sensibility that produced the texts in the first place.
How do I feel about all this? I am not sure, but it does cross my mind right now that I never have actually read the Count of Monte Cristo after all. If I think of the story, I see in the mind’s eye the excellent TV movie serialisation of the novel made back in the 1990s with Gerard Depardieu in the lead role. Similarly, once upon a time, I grew interested in the crime fiction of the mid twentieth century—all those Graham Greene like novels that exist but now appear to me as purely sordid and uninteresting—but many of these were also turned into movies (that old ‘film noir’ vibe) and, I recall, as soon as I saw the movie and processed a story that way, I lost all interest in bothering to read the actual book. There’s yet another process of distance reading at work.
I am not sure where the impression actually originates, but a strong sense I have had of life in earlier ages revolves around a comparable idea to the servant girl clutching her stuffed parrot in Gustave Flaubert’s ‘A Simple Heart’ novella, where people held onto some book, or story, as something inherently meaningful to them—almost like a ‘if one is familiar with “The Good Book”, what need is there for any others?’ idea—and that is a reality that comes to define a person’s life. It is hard to imagine people today attributing a comparable significance to any one text. Does that mean that writers are the last true romantics, in the nineteenth century sense of the word, because in feeling the need to write, writers are echoing the romantic sense that the individual’s voice somehow intrinsically matters?
Sometimes I think that, contrary to a popular picture of a domesticated prison, the nineteenth century rather than the twentieth or twenty-first was actually the most individualistic era in human history, in terms of people’s sensibilities. That may not be strictly true, but perhaps it is a sense that some historians, in recent times, may be more inclined than ever to echo. I remember a few years ago finding a history book that seemed to illustrate that, namely Tim Blanning’s ‘The Romantic Revolution’. Somehow, it felt like it managed to capture the spirit of the age and also managed to make the nineteenth century “seem cool” again. Not in a Woody Allen ‘Midnight in Paris’ nostalgia sense, but in a historical sense. If that idea arouses curiosity, Blanning’s text is perhaps worth a glance. All I can remember about the book now is that the historian in me seemed to recognise in it that, somehow or another, it really is “a good book”. Or, in other words, it is a book that somehow may allow one to acquire a distant-reading sense of an age without necessarily relying on a computer with blinking lights to achieve this. If history books can still achieve that somehow, I will raise a glass to that, even if my computer will no doubt tell me that the romantic revolution is but a romantic illusion. Ibsen may have said that all humans need their illusions, or delusions, but I still sympathise with that girl and her stuffed parrot as someone who intrinsically had their heart in the right place. Yes, I know, one of these days I will have to invest in one of those horseless carriages. And, truth be told, Flaubert was a bit of a shit head, no matter how entertaining his letters can still be to writers, in a truly confessional sense. And if Maupassant sometimes found the ‘mot juste’, it still may not necessarily have been the right one. But then again neither shall we.