Word Count

The latest installment of the Times Humanities 2.0 is up, and its a good one:  it’s all about Dan Cohen and Fed Gibbs’s work at George Mason’s Center for History and New Media, where they’re using a Google digital humanities grant to count words in Victorian books the titles of 1,681,161 books that were published in English in the UK in the long nineteenth century, 1789-1914, tracking, for instance, the decline of “universal” and the rise of “science.”  I have a few compunctions about this kind of analysis, particularly when it comes to single works; it’s never just count but context (e.g., a word cloud of Portrait of the Artist would probably put “unconscious” and “smithy” at the near invisible level) that makes meaning.  At the same time, this strikes me as vital work for modern periodical studies, which won’t really get off the ground if all it does is just more close reading of articles and issues.  We need loads of data and good ways to analyze and synthesize it, and Cohen and Gibbs’ study of Victorian books looks promising for magazines.  Indeed, one hopes that they’ll extend their study to magazines, since I would argue periodicals provide a much better index to historical transformation than books do.  Of course, counting periodical titles won’t get us too far. The problem has always been that there’s been too much to read.  That’s still a big problem, but this kind of quantification makes it a little smaller.  Here’s a link to a post about the conference paper discussed in the Times article; it’s from  Dan Cohen’s own blog, as is the image above.

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