Monday, February 15, 2010

How Would a Robot Read a Novel?

Even if the prospect of a free Literary Festival in London, followed by a drinks reception at the inaugural talk, hadn’t been enough, how could I resist the title? Might it signal the end of reading, like an expansion ad infinitum of The Readers’ Digest?

LSE Alumni clearly don’t swell the noble (i.e. poorly paying) professions. The New Academic Building in Kingsway is a palace of blond-wood, steel and plate glass. Surely the Champagne quality would match it.

‘Don’t leave any gaps! We’re expecting a full house!’ Marshalled by redshirts with military haircuts into the Sheikh Zayed Theatre, the docile booklovers fill up rows from the front, like Saturday morning picturegoers.

LSE was founded, apparently by George Bernard Shaw. This second annual festival, said stand-in chairman Tom Chapman was, ‘a return to the LSE’s roots’ and great results were expected. After the 2009 event then-Chairman David Hare went out and wrote ‘The Power of Yes’, now showing at the National Theatre (The Time Out critic says it sounds like a two-hour lecture, perhaps not so surprising)

The talk title should have read ‘What Happens When a Computer Programme Reads a Novel?’ or ‘What Do Social Scientists Look for in Novels?’

First, a social psychologist, a literary theorist and a novelist take turns to present a huge screen of colour-coded pie-charts (although novelist Robert Hudson refuses.) A text-analysing programme called Alceste had been fed novels like Moby Dick and The Da Vinci Code.

Alceste can’t read the text, only recognise ‘co-occurrences’ and tabulate frequencies of appearance, hence the pie charts. These show the percentage of religion-related topics in Dan Brown’s best seller or ditto whaling in Melville’s epic. I was waiting for the interesting part, but it didn’t happen, except when audience questions strayed into literary territory.

Novelist Robert Hudson approved the findings for his own novel. ‘The Kilburn Social Club’ was 50% about relationships, Alceste said, which might be expected from the title, although he feared it might come up with ‘football’. Considering the book cover shows a of a football pitch (it was on sale in the foyer) and blurb mentions a young woman who inherits a football club it just goes to show that Alceste could be a handy corrective tool for readers. Even so, the ‘co-occurrences’ needed interpretation, which was subjective.

To me Alceste’s major,even fatal, short-coming was that it couldn’t say whether a book was any good. There’s only one way to do that:just carry on reading for oneself. Phew! And the Champagne was excellent.

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