Graphs, Maps, and Trees

When reading Franco Moretti ‘s “Graphs, Maps, and Trees”, I felt that I saw him focus on two main points. First of all, he brings up that scholars of literary history tend to spend plenty of time documenting the classics of a given period, buy pay almost no attention to the average, everyday works that were published in said period. The second point regarded his philosophy of studying stories and trends in stories by using, “graphs, maps, and trees”.
On one hand, reading his first point makes perfect sense. There seems something almost perfectly human and expected in people focusing on the major works of a given era rather than what was written and read from week-to-week by the ordinary people. We are a big event kind of species. And yet, somehow, this seems truly tragic. How can a person be a real historian if they do not have some knowledge of what reading a book for the average person would look like? In this sense, his book is not just a description of a style of analytical thinking. It is a bold call to action for historians to delve into the past and really immerse themselves in the writings of the time.
The second part of his argument brings to mind the Robin Williams movie, “Dead Poet’s Society”. In this movie, at the beginning of the school year at an elite prep school, Williams, playing the unorthodox English teacher of a group of young men, has them tear out the pages of their literature books that teach students how to judge the greatness of a work based on charts. As this (and the rest of the movie) make clear, Williams character greatly prefers the qualitative over quantitative.
However, there is a place for everything, and this work by Mr. Moretti would seem to provide the answer. Fine, he says. You can’t use quantitative methods to analyze the book itself on a merit basis. But you can to find its place in history, to chart not only the progression of actions within the book, but the place of the book in the genre predominant of whatever time the book is from. This is what I approve most of his system…the reliance of these charts for analyzing trends. In previous posts, the method of using pictures to tell history as a future way of communicating it on the internet was discussed. While the chart system Moretti proposes is not something that could only come about in the internet age, it does make said idea more in depth. If we truly are living in the age of the database, this system would seem perfect for taking that information and molding it to tell the story of history.

3 Replies to “Graphs, Maps, and Trees”

  1. Moretti takes a bold step – a leap of faith – in challenging literature and literary history. Convinced that there was much to be learned from the natural and social sciences, he approached the subject as abstract, yet the consequences are exceptionally tangible and specific. For him, the theoretical is not the end but a spark, a foundation that broadens the sphere in which the literary historian functions. It is different? Absolutely but his blending of geography, quantitative history, and evolutionary theory works. Stop reading and start counting, graphing, and mapping.

  2. Shakespeare said, “all the world’s a stage and all men and women merely players.” Moretti’s “Graphs, Maps and Trees,” I imagine, would largely hold the same concept true for literary historians.
    The argument made, in essence, is that Literary Historian scholars focus entirely too much on the defining works of the various eras in history. While, surely, Jane Austen’s work was emblematic of the female struggle at the time, ascribing her credit for the entire emergence of female authors of the time is overzealous, and naïve even.
    The novel approach to this was his introduction of concepts – graphs, maps and trees primarily – to chart the progress and map historical accords in literary history. The novelty to this, I found, was in its blatant ignorance of specific titles. Rather than focusing in on emblematic pieces, graphs took quantitative data over qualitative data, charting social movements as well as advances in printing presses and accessibility to writing materials throughout the past 3-400 years. Maps provided geographic awareness to novels, drawing the worlds created by these books to better place their structure as well as origin in their time. Trees worked accordingly with graphs as they charted the schisms in literary history and the introduction of new genres, authors and movements in literature.
    I found this enticing as Moretti doled on about the difference his approaches offered to the craft of his study. Reading, however, I was unable to shake the persistent feeling that social factors were largely ignored in his analysis, however brief. No mention was there of political movements, institutions such as the Vatican, individual actors and their own influence. While I realize the book was more an assumption of premise, I still found the lack of credit offered to individuals or smaller movements disconcerting. Still, not a bad read.

  3. I enjoyed Graphs, Maps, Trees : it offers a bold, new way to integrate methodologies from disciplines that are usually seen as opposites, not complementary. Moretti's attacking the canon is part of a larger historiographical movement (see, for instance, Jane Tompkins's Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 ), but his novelty lies in using social science analytical techniques to explore deeper cultural trends and meanings within literature. Non-canonical works are very important to this, mainly in their quantity.

    In response to the post above, I think that this approach works better in raising questions for scholars to pursue rather than in answering them. Moretti acknowledges that he is interested in discovering "hidden patterns," but doesn't necessarily intend to delineate them (54). In this way his work is unsatisfying, but he creates ample matter for further analyses.

    This approach reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell's work: challenging conventional wisdom with new data and questions. Indeed, Moretti's comment that anomalies cannot "change the system" (17; i.e. the culture must evolve for new trends to become cemented) anticipates some of Gladwell's conclusions in Outliers .

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