About the blog: the long version
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.
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.
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.
 Krzysztof Pomian, ‘L’histoire des structures’, in Jacques Le Goff, Roger Chartier, JacquesRevel, eds, La nouvelle histoire, Paris 1978, pp. 115-16.
 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.