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About the blog: the long version

5.20.07

During the summer of 2005, I spent two days a week interning at Verso Books’ New York City office. Boxes of review copies arrived on a pretty regular basis, new books that we’d get a little while before they were to come out. One of those books was Graphs, Maps, Trees, by Franco Moretti. As far as I remember, my boss handed me a copy the afternoon it arrived and told me to write a press release for it. I took the book, sat down to take a look at it, and then somehow I was two thirds of the way through and it was time to go home for the day.

I think I was hooked by page three. See, the first chapter, “Graphs,” starts like this:

“Before the advent of the Annales, Krzysztof Pomian once wrote,

the gaze of the historian [was directed] towards extraordinary events…historians resembled collectors: both gathered only rare and curious objects, disregarding whatever looked banal, everyday, normal…history was an idiographic discipline, having as its object that which does not repeat itself.[1]

History was…Pomian speaks in the past tense here, as is probably accurate in the case of social history, but certainly not for its literary counterpart, where the collector of rare and curious works, that do not repeat themselves, exceptional — and which close reading makes even more exceptional, by emphasizing the uniqueness of exactly this word and this sentence here — is still by far the dominant figure. But what would happen if literary historians, too, decided to ‘shift their gaze’ (Pomian again) ‘from the extraordinary to the everyday, from exceptional events to the large mass of facts’? What literature would we find, in ‘the large mass of facts’?

All questions that occurred to me some years ago, when the study of national bibliographies made me realize what a minimal fraction of the literary field we all work on: a canon of two hundred novels, for instance, sounds very large for nineteenth-century Britain (and is much larger than the current one), but is still less than one percent of all the novels that were actually published: twenty thousand, thirty, more, no one really knows — and close reading won’t help here, a novel a day every day of the year would take a century or so…And it’s not even a matter of time, but of method: a field this large cannot be understood by stitching together separate bits of knowledge about individual cases, because it isn’t a sum of individual cases: it’s a collective system, that should be grasped as such, as whole — and the graphs that follow are one way to begin doing this. Or as Fernand Braudel put it int eh lecture on history he gave to his companions in the German prison camp near Lübeck:

An incredible number of dice, always rolling, dominate and determine each individual existence: Uncertainty, then, in the realm of individual history, but in that of collective history…simplicity and consistency. History is indeed ‘a poor little conjectural science’ when it selects individuals as its objects…but much more rational is its procedures and results when it examines groups and repetitions.[2]

A more rational literary history. That is the idea.”

Well. That made quite an impression on me. I love books — that’s pretty obvious, I think — but I always used to think that I didn’t love them in the right way. The canon is great, sure, but there’s a lot more than that, and I tend to like the forgotten, often mediocre books more than the classics. I used to feel kind of guilty about that. I don’t anymore. That passage of Moretti’s gave me a meeting place between the literary, the historical, and the books I read for fun.

This site has no particular pretensions. I’m not writing real literary criticism. But it doesn’t have to be. Recently I spoke with an English professor about what distinguishes the canon from other books. We agreed that the best answer is “nothing,” but that only answers one side of the question.

Inherently, there is no clear-cut difference between the books that are supposed to be important and the books that aren’t. But that still leaves us with a problem: a lot of books are completely ignored. I guess what I’m trying to do here is a kind of show-and-tell: here are some books. They aren’t classics. They aren’t even always very good. But that doesn’t stop them from being important, in their own small way.

Not every book I review here is going to to be available as an ebook, but public domain popular fiction is primarily what I’m here for.

[1] Krzysztof Pomian, ‘L’histoire des structures’, in Jacques Le Goff, Roger Chartier, JacquesRevel, eds, La nouvelle histoire, Paris 1978, pp. 115-16.

[2] Fernand Braudel, ‘L’histoire, mesure du monde’, in Les écrits de Fernand Braudel, vol. II, Paris 1997

both quoted in Moretti, Franco. Graphs, maps, trees. London: Verso 2005 pp. 3-4 reproduced here with the kind permission of the author.

Quite from choice

31 comments

  1. I like it and the background and colors make it easy to read


  2. Great+Site+%2D+really+useful+information%21f


  3. I am thrilled to have found your site. I too love books and am a sucker for many of the books you have reviewed.

    Brava! and Thank you.

    Lyn


  4. Thank you! I’m always glad to know that people like what I’m doing here.


  5. I just discovered your website searching for various girl mysteries. I’m enjoying very much what I have read so far, and especially the quote

    So, there are a lot of books that have been forgotten. And most of them probably weren’t very good, but I bet a lot of them were fun.

    which reminds me of a book I am currently reading, The Shadow of the Wind, in which there is a “Cemetary of Forgotten Books.” Thanks for a great site.

    BarbaraWHM


  6. Glad you’re enjoying it!


  7. The illustrations that you’ve scanned for the blog are truly rare. Something I haven’t seen in the books that are published in the last 2 decades. I love books and I’ve just got started reading through various genres.
    Looking forward to reading your blog!! and hope to enjoy the books you’ve mentioned.


  8. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the illustrations here. I’m hoping to put up more soon.


  9. Melody, I want to make a couple of recommendations from my list of favorites that I think you will enjoy and which are available on Gutenberg.

    By Margaret Widdemer: The Rose-Garden Husband (read this one first) and The Wishing-Ring Man. The first is one of my favorite rainy-day, curl up on the couch and read books (although you can’t really get cozy with a laptop, if you’re reading the book online).

    “The Primrose Ring” by Ruth Sawyer (who also wrote “Roller Skates”) is very sweet.

    “Mother Carey’s Chickens” by Kate Douglas Wiggins

    “Molly Brown’s Senior Days” and “Molly Brown’s Orchard Home” are both on Gutenberg, but unless you’ve followed Molly since she was a freshman, I don’t see how they will make sense to you.

    “The Green Satin Gown” by Laura E. Richards. This is a collection of short stories, some of which are better than others, but a nice collection nonetheless.

    I’d love to see your reactions to any of these if you get a chance to read them.


  10. Thank you! It will probably take me a while to get around to reading these, but I’m pretty sure I trust your taste.


  11. My mom discovered your blog after a recent conversation we had about the Patty books. Do you also know about Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster? If not, you definitely should. It’s one of the best examples of novel as social history that I can think of. You can learn more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daddy-Long-Legs_%28novel%29.


  12. I am very, very fond of Daddy-Long-Legs, and I re-read it only a week or two ago. But I actually prefer the sequel, Dear Enemy. have you read that? Here‘s my post on it.

    And welcome to Redeeming Qualities. I hope you and your mother both enjoy it. Did she read the Patty books as a kid?


  13. Nice site! I know exactly what you mean when you say that prefer forgotten books. Because as book-lovers, we know that when we read, the thoughts of a long-dead writer come alive inside our head. By seeking forgotten authors – you are doing your bit to make them come alive once again. :)


  14. I hadn’t thought of it that way–my personal metaphor has something to do with adopting forgotten children–but I think you’re right. Thanks for stopping by!


  15. Hi there,

    I’ve only had a few minutes to browse through your site and I can’t wait to spend more time here. I’m in the process of creating a very rudimentary blog as a means of compiling books that fall into the mid-19th to mid-20th century young adult chick lit “genre.” I’m hoping to connect with people who can lead me to lesser known works and it seems you have some listed here. I can’t wait to start reading some of the books you’ve reviewed!


    • That sounds like a really interesting project. I look forward to seeing what you come up with!


  16. I really love this site. From the combination of needing books for my Sony Reader and wanting to get into the heads of my late Victorian/Edwardian characters (after all, popular fiction reflects the pop culture of each era), I began downloading a few of the books mentioned in my history books (Elinor Glyn, Ouida, etc) from Project Gutenberg and Google Books. It’s a bit of a treasure hunt to find reviews/summaries of these old books (a dedicated search of the NY Times archives and Google Books unveils a good amount), but your site and a few others are really helpful not only for finding new old reads, but also providing a place to discuss them! Keep up the most excellent work.


    • Thanks! I’m a fan of your site, which I frequently use for reference. I do go to the Times and Google Books to look for reviews sometimes, but not as a regular thing, and I probably should.

      Does your Reader also support pdf? Because if it does, the Internet Archive is another great source for books.


  17. I just found your site thanks to the comments in this Smart Bitches thread (http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/comments/victorian-romances/) and am so excited to start reading “forgotten” books — I’m graduating from college soon so I can start reading non-assigned books again. I fully support what you’re doing: I just wrote a senior undergrad thesis in which part of the argument was the value of non-canonical works, using 2 canonical novels and 4 non-canonical ones I found via Google Books. And the books were Victorian and just after. :-)


    • Thanks for pointing me toward that Smart Bitches post — I’ll definitely be picking up some recommendations from the comments there.

      Also, your thesis sounds really interesting. What books did you use?


      • Thanks! For the canonical books, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Kim by Rudyard Kipling.

        For the non-canonical, The Adventures of Nevil Brooke by Christopher James Riethmuller, With Clive in India by G.A. Henty, Puck and Pearl by Frederika Macdonald and The Baba Log by James Middleton MacDonald (no relation). They’re all available scanned from Google Books, although Nevil Brooke was hard because it’s in 3 volumes and search usually turns up one.


        • All children’s books, all India-related? The only one of the non-canonical ones I’ve read is the Henty. Are the others worthwhile?


          • Yes, all children’s books that are India-related. The others aren’t very good, unless you’re looking to study something. Puck and Pearl has little or no objectionable material if you have a 4 year old who wants to hear about another 4 year old in colonial India, but I wouldn’t read the others. Nevil Brooke is basically a 900-page version of the Henty with a romance plot thrown in.


            • Ouch. 900 pages of Henty sounds nightmarish.


  18. I forget how I stumbled onto your blog, but I’m glad I did since I downloaded about five books based on your reviews. I also downloaded *another* five books I’ve been meaning to get but kept forgetting to. I “inheirted” a love of certain authors from my grandparents, and P. G. Wodehouse is the only one of them still in print. Have you ever read any Frank L. Packard? His heroes can be morons at times, but his heroines are always strong, intelligent and resourceful, and usually know more about the evil gang than the hero. “The White Moll” is interesting because it has the woman on the lam after she unsuccessfully tries to prevent a crime. The beginning is hilariously contrived, but after that it keeps up the action and tension so I don’t care.


    • Thanks for reading! I love it when people find new things to read here.

      I’ve never heard of Packard, but he sounds like fun. I’ll put The White Moll on my reading list.


  19. Oh, I am so happy I found your blog. I can’t believe it’s been hiding from me all that time!


    • I’m glad you like it!


  20. [...] than the rest?  For example, in addition to this very blog post, there is at least one other blog posting regarding the very same words from Krzysztof Pomian , the Polish philosopher and historian, and [...]


  21. I have just discovered the Ruth Fielding series. My husband, who runs a flea market, came across “Ruth Fielding at Briarwood Hall” in the contents of an estate. They are delightful.


    • Ruth Fielding is awesome! Glad you’re enjoying her.



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