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As a member of the literati, you surely already know what bourgeois culture is, but a refresher can't hurt. It's one of my pet subjects, so it's best that you know what I'm talking about. If you're on the other side of the pond in Great Britain, you likely prefer the term "middle class," but no matter how you slice it, I study how this class rolls in the 19th-century British and American novel.
I like to dig into sentences like a Victorian explorer in the jungle with machete. (Maybe not my best metaphor.) Point is, I'm all about details.
When I read a book, I hunt down references to bourgeois culture by examining words that indicate, by appearing and reappearing, their importance in the work. Some favorite vocab of bourgeois culture: comfort, useful, efficiency. What does that tell us about these folks? Well, it tells us that life for them was all about ease, wellbeing, smooth sailing, having a pleasant day at home, and all that.
It also tells us that the bourgeoisie was all about being above the working class and using their homes, dress, and manners to make sure everybody knew they had made it.
Allow me to provoke you. You know that massive stack of books on your desk—the ones you are supposed to read and then, like, write some five-paragraph essay on? Don't read them. You heard me: don't read them. It's just too much.
If you practice distance reading (as opposed to the long and tedious process known as close reading—yawn), you don't trudge one by one through each book, hoping by hook or by crook to derive a nugget of meaning. You aggregate and analyze huge bodies of data generated by computers or legions of graduate students.
You can never make it through all of the books published in the Victorian era, so why try? Computers can do so much more—and so much more quickly. When was the last time you tried to quantify differences between the chapter lengths of early 19th-century Gothic novels and late 19th-century realist novels? Here at the Stanford Literary Lab, we're diagramming the heck out of these works, and we're coming up with all sorts of nifty data.
Just as it sounds, digital humanities is all about using science and computers to study and understand books. It sees the upside to the movement to digitize books (like the whole Google Books project). In digital humanities, we don't sentimentalize the physical book—we want to make literary study fast and expedient.
We're here to get data so that we can draw comparisons and see the big picture. We're not here to swoon over how handsome and unavailable Mr. Darcy is. This is science, people.
Digital humanities is about data sets and getting info out of, like, 3,631 books via computer, so that we can sit back and look at how word use changed over time. It's all about big-picture stuff like that. We're in a lab, not a cubicle at the library, baby.
By way of example, here are some of the data I might consider after I've fed a bunch of books into my Novel-o-meter 9000 (that's not really my computer's name... yet): "How far, on average, do characters in 19th-century English novels walk over the course of a book? How frequently are new genres of popular fiction invented? How many words does the average novel's protagonist speak?" (source).
The bigger the archive we study, the better. We are data hungry—it's all about quantity, not quality—which is to say: stop worrying about things like aesthetics and beauty and get down to science.
You know how you usually plod along through a novel, going from beginning to end and paying attention to such traditional concepts as characters and setting and the like? That's so old school. Network theory brings all of that to a screeching halt: it looks at one moment in the novel and then maps it out to look at various networks among people and events.