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  • Measuring Unreading
  • Andrew Piper and James Manalad

When Margaret Cohen first coined the term "the great unread," she was referring to the vast swaths of literary history that remain unexamined by scholars.1 In this sense, these books are not "not read," but simply not studied, or studied only by a small cohort of later readers. Indeed, many of these supposedly unread books may have been some of the most popular, and thus most read, by readers of the past. As Franco Moretti's later work would underscore, addressing the great unread is about reclaiming the study of certain types of books that have been overlooked and attempting to construct a more representative sample of the past.2 New digital techniques of text analysis have allowed scholars to be less selective about the books they study and have allowed them to reconstruct more accurate representations of past literary practices.3

Left out of this discussion is the larger question of what it means for something to be "unread." There are many books, for example, that we have read but no longer remember anything about. Do these count as read or unread? There are also many books (all too many) that we stopped reading well before the end. Our bookshelves are littered with books with bookmarks positioned far from the back cover. Do these count as read or unread? And there are numerous moments when we've read a passage but stopped paying attention. Our attention waxes and wanes when we read. What is read and unread in such scenarios?

Historians of reading have long wrestled with these problems. What can we know about what people have read? As Leah Price has suggested, when a book most impresses us, we are often apt to put the pen down.4 When a book marks us, we don't necessarily mark it. Studying marks, whether in the form of underlining, marginal annotation (or now highlighting), misses a good deal about what matters to reading. Part of the value of reading has been its inscrutability, its capacity as a cultural practice to wall us off from the world.5

Reading and unreading might be thought of then as complementary practices, as behaviors that are intertwined with each other. Rather than think about the unread as something distinct and apart, we can also think about it as an integral practice to how we read. In this essay, we want to introduce a new computational method that we can use to think about this imbricated practice of unreading. Where much of the discussion about the great unread has focused on books (or documents more generally), here we want [End Page 233] to explore the differential spaces of reading and not reading within books. The great unread is typically thought of as a sampling problem, where the goal is to add more texts to the study of the past. The explicit aim is to move past the study of a single canonical figure, which animates publications like the Goethe Jahrbuch. In one sense, then, focusing on the great unread in a journal devoted to a single person my seem paradoxical.

But this presupposes that attention to Goethe's own writing—our reading of his writing—is largely uniform, that there are no unread spaces in Goethe's corpus. Literary criticism is often animated by a spirit of rereading—revisiting a passage or work that others have already commented on and adding a new insight or version of its meaning. In this sense, literary criticism lavishes attention where attention has already been paid. It is a highly unequal enterprise by nature. Our aim in drawing attention to the unread spaces of Goethe's corpus is to initiate a conversation about the meaning of concentration and repetition in the practice of critical reading. What are the values associated with the intense levels of rereading in our field? And what might the value be of a form of criticism that is attentive to the spaces of inattention—that is, to the act of reading the unread, even within spaces that are considered to be highly read (like Goethe)?

We will be focusing on the practice of quotation...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-9087
Print ISSN
0734-3329
Pages
pp. 233-241
Launched on MUSE
2020-08-15
Open Access
No
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