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ENGL 607 - The History and Future of Reading

Instructor: D. M. Ullyot
Schedule: Mon/Wed 1:00-3:45pm

Course Description:

The history of reading begins with the invention of written language and culminates, like all histories, in the present — in the seminar room of this course, among other places. Here we will study that history and the theorizations of reading practices, and consider how cultural and material circumstances have influenced historical readers. And we will see the present and future of reading as equally subject to our own intellectual habits and technologies. But we will also examine our practices of reading two novels in 2018 — novels from the 1760s and the 1990s. Both are “thick with the presence of other books” (in A.S. Byatt’s words), and with an awareness of their own status as books, of both the limits and potential of written language. 

We read today in an age of abundance, when Google Books offers searchable access to 12 million books in 300 languages (so far). Digital tools help us navigate and analyze these texts quickly, but human expertise must apply qualitative judgement to all of this quantitative data. This course will explore the possibilities and limitations of what Stephen Ramsay calls “algorithmic criticism,” or the use of computers to ask empirical questions of texts, and to visualize their linguistic features using quantitative tools and visualizations. Ramsay has addressed the limitations of this criticism, which aims “not to constrain meaning, but to guarantee its multiplicity.” To this end, the course aims primarily to teach and to theorize a critical toolkit, and to understand how it originates in or differs from past reading and interpretive practices. 

Provisional Reading List: 

A. S. Byatt, Possession: A Romance (1991) 

Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) 


Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière, This is Not the End of the Book (2012) 

Matthew Jockers, Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (2013) 

Hugh McGuire and Brian O'Leary, eds. Book: A Futurist's Manifesto (2011) 

Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for A Literary History (2005) 

Stephen Ramsay, Reading Machines (2011)