Quantifying the Unquantifiable

I admit it: part of the reason I started this blog is because I spend an hour an unreasonable amount of time every morning looking around various literary websites and blogs*, and I needed a way to justify that investment – plus I wanted a place to put all the thoughts that were prompted by what I read.

So here are two things I looked at this morning, which seem to work together nicely. Over at the New York Times Paper Cuts blog, Barry Gewen offers his assessment of Judge Richard A. Posner – not a cultural critic that I have ever sampled, admittedly, though Gewen does a pretty good job of convincing me that I should. What struck me about the post were these lines:

Posner likes to quantify, and sometimes he tries to quantify what isn’t quantifiable. David Brooks caught the problem perfectly in his review of Posner’s magnificently wrong-headed book “Public Intellectuals”: “Watching Posner try to apply economic laws to public debate is a bit like watching a Martian trying to use statistics to explain a senior prom. He is able to detect a few crude patterns, but he’s missing the fraught complexity of the thing.”

Then, over at the Syntax of Things, I came across this video, which kind of blew my mind.


Half of me thinks this is a brilliant, if totally geekish idea. The other half thinks: There is no way on this earth that such a technology could work or help in anyway whatsoever. So BookLamp might be able to tell me if a book is plot heavy or light on dialogue, but it can’t come close, presumably, to judging the quality of a book’s style. It must miss the fraught complexity of the thing, no? And isn’t that why we need good critics? And isn’t that complexity, the kind that resists being reduced to a statistic, the kind that authors strive for? Could this technology possibly work on poetry? I think not.

Actually, after thinking about it, the bigger half (and I know there’s no such thing) thinks that BookLamp is a totally wrong-headed idea, but there’s a little geek in me that thinks it’s kinda cool and that there’s probably a use for it somewhere. Assessing the appeal of books just isn’t it.

*OK, so maybe I check People.com too. And, um, realitytvworld.com. But that’s because, with as little posturing as possible, I cast myself in the tradition of those who think so-called “low” and “middle brow” art as worthy of cultural discussion and assessment as that stuffy old high brow stuff. If this approach was good enough for Orwell, it’s good enough for me.

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