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Tuesday, January 13, 2004
By Paul Ford
The personal desire for maps of literature.
Over the last many months, I've spent at least 100 hours going through the Cornell Making of America archive, which holds tens of thousands of pages of journals and magazines published between 1815 and 1901. Due to the ease with which all of these words can be accessed and the incredible breadth of the collection, this browsing has occupied more hours than I'd like to admit. Plowing through the database of titles, I've discovered works of high strangeness, including invitations to pilgrimages, angry statements against the Statue of Liberty, instructions on telegraphing Chinese, bizarre essays on the monkey, metaphors of addiction, and works of inexcusable humor.
The pleasures of these texts is not from their “literary” quality. It comes from reading them and establishing, internally, the vector of differences between the work's author and myself, in building a model of human change—linguistic, social, psychological—over the last century. Literature is that which rises above time, which points to human universals, whereas the works that catch my eye in the archive are those which were lost and forgotten.
As Jim Esch points out, quoting the OED, literature is “writing which has claim to consideration on the ground of beauty of form or emotional effect.” It encapsulates the human condition, supposedly, and by creating such a crystal view into our selves, it attains a quality of timelessness. In a way, as Howard Bloom has argued about Shakespeare, literature defines the times which come after. The texts which survive, which are worthy of repeated study and consideration, show us the version of human thought that we want to carry forward and maintain.
The debate over the canon of literature was a storm in academia in the 80's and 90's, as a group of progressive professors argued that it was the exclusive zone of the white male, and should be opened to those it had excluded—women, homosexuals, people of color, and become a more inclusive map of human experience. On the other side, it was argued that the canon was the foundation of our culture, and to tamper with it, to replace Shakespeare with Kathy Acker, say, would open us to anarchy.
Elsewhere, advocates of postmodern theories were arguing that we should forget the canon entirely, and focus on the analysis of texts, whether commercials, Shakespeare, or cereal boxes, to tease out the cultural meanings inherent in those texts, finding the oppositions and paradoxes in each sentence and setting them spinning around each other. But all of these people advocated close reading, deep thinking about a given text.
Because I am a shallow person, and because I am not willing to sacrifice too much the specific pleasure that reading gives me, I cannot get on board with any of these ideologies. The sentences of Thomas Hardy are one thing, but the feeling that I experienced when I put down Jude the Obscure for the first time, half-in and half-out of Hardy's consciousness, is the reason I read. I love Literature-with-a-capital-L, but what I love about it is the sense of closing a book and still swimming in its prose, the narrative half-light before the immediate world pours back in with aluminum brightness. It's a pleasure I receive, in differing degrees, from a wide variety of works, whether junk sci-fi, a well-written newspaper article or weblog posting, or As You Like It. The strongest works, the ones which are closest to my experience, might never fully vanish from my mind, casting their fractional glow over every interaction, and from there I derive my personal canon.
What gives those works lingering power, ultimately, is their context: the fact that they exist in relationship not simply to all other texts, nor simply to the culture in which they are read, but to every moment of my life to date. The thing I want to figure out is not the binary opposition inherent in a page of Melville, but the reason that Melville's strangeness is so powerful. I want to know why his work can cast a tropical light of the South Seas, or the pallid light of Bartleby's office, over my awareness of the day-to-day life of subways and coffee cups. His placement in the canon gives him a sort of default context—this is great literature—but, someone who can only truly know what I think and must guess as to the thoughts of anyone else, or more simply, as an egotist, it's my own model of Melville that matters most to me, that has to matter most.
So my interest, the way I think about Literature, has more to do with context than with the works themselves. My approach is not to look through the small, granular aspects of language that close reading would have me pursue, but rather to try to understand the half-lights, the blurry lines between my vision and the author's, the way that a work fits into some larger scheme of seeing the world: the canon, its era, my own life, politics, or the study of history. And so my journey as a reader, a lowercase-r-reader of capital-L-literature, is in understanding context, as many contexts as I can. I avidly read jacket notes to learn more about authors, and wonder at the way that titles are changed to sell more copies of a given volume. I want to understand the process whereby a given thing comes into existence, from the author's impulse to the editor's red pen, to the typographer's fast-moving hands across the cases of lead, or how computers arrange text inside of software and convert impulses, via the Linotronic, into film. The bigger the picture, the broader my understanding, the happier I am as a reader.
Which leaves me feeling alone, as the capital-R-Readers, the institutions dedicated to the preservation of textual culture, work with microscopes. As I wrote in the first part of this essay, I want cartography. I want to see maps of the world of language, maps which overlap and connect.
Given this desire, and not able to buy what I desire, I've gone ahead and built a primitive system of my own to leverage the power of the computer to this end; you're looking at it now. As a half-wit in the half-light, with an extraliterary career, I can only give this a few hours a week, so it goes more slowly than I'd like. That said, the next wave of content management for Ftrain (and others), under development with Jack Rusher, is a more explicit tool for doing these sorts of things, a tool for zooming in and out of a work to arbitrary heights. In its most literal sense, this means that the computer will draw me a map of every nation or street mentioned in this work, but it allows for other kinds of maps—ideally those rich, Tufte-style interfaces to data, but clickable. Then, as the system is more and more able to store more texts, using the technologies of the Semantic Web, both my own and Jack's, and perhaps those which are finding their way into Project Gutenberg, or those in the Making of America series, and those of anyone else who wants to wade in, I'll be able to create maps like those of Moretti's automatically, showing the context of my own thoughts, my own ontologies connected with others, both present and historical, and they'll be able to do the same. Money, and time—but that's the goal, and some day, fingers crossed.
Context has its own pleasures. The other day I was browsing a copy of Putnam's from 1853, reading about dogs, when there I found, in type hand-set in New York City, now digitally scanned and transmitted from a server in Ithaca, the title “Bartleby the Scrivener: a Story of Wall Street.“
It reminded me of my first year in New York, when walking up Broadway, I might come to the Flatiron Building, or the fountain at Lincoln Center, which I'd only seen in movies—The Producers, Moonstruck. Suddenly the monument is delivered in an environment, no longer sliced out of the surrounding architecture and forced to stand on its own. Here it is, with my eyes as camera, surrounded by traffic and bodies in motion, suddenly less monument and returned to the city—returned to context. And here was Bartleby in 1853, his first half (he was finished off in the next issue) making his debut, sandwiched between The Life of a Dog and Inscription for the Back of a Bank Note.
I was struck by how odd this story must have seemed to its readers (contemporary critics called the story “weird.”) And I wondered, how had this particular literary event found its way out of these pages, into the anthologies if not through a series of overlapping contexts, contexts altering over time, taking Bartleby away from The Life of a Dog and placing him next to The Tell-Tale Heart, with footnotes?
It is the job of scholars to anthologize and re-present the works they want us to see, and save our thumbs from the effort of browsing an entire library to find the best works. But something is always lost in the process: Blake's poems are reproduced without their engravings; Emily Dickinson's strange illustrations (among other things, she affixed stamps to her poems, and arranged them in unique ways on the page) are never seen. Now, as various technologies converge, we can have both—Borgesian libraries of massive proportions with maps, and pins stuck into the maps to show us the landmarks. We can wander, citizens of language, free to stumble across monuments—including those forgotten—through the city of language, or we can pick up our guidebooks and take a tour of the sights, Hamlet and Ulysses like the Statue of Liberty and Rockefeller Center.
Just as important, we can see what is forgotten, and realize that, despite every bit of contrary proclamation, we are more like our forebears than we'd want to admit. The annals of old magazines are filled with tossed-off misogyny and racism, Indian-hating and class bias. The canon is not simply the best of what persists, it is also the least offensive, the most likely to bring us to self-contratulation. “Look what we created,” we can say, pointing to Shakespeare, or Chinua Achebe, or Izaak Walton, just as we point to the skyline of Manhattan, seen from either side of the rivers, forgetting that the buildings are only tall in relation to their shorter neighbors. “We truly are a great society.” We choose our writers by how well they represent our own values, what they tell us about our modern lives. But there is so much to learn from their more ignorant, unprophetic peers—those authors who didn't get the message, who used stereotypes and unsophisticated characterization to draw their conclusions. And we're left with the question, are we just as ignorant, just as grasping, will we seem this way to our ancestors?
In an age with more limited resources, the skyscraper-canon was a way to preserve and honor, but given the opportunity to have great masses of text and image together in networked form, and connected to varying degrees, I now have the opportunity to contemplate not just the grand moments, but the mundane—and as almost all of my life is comprised of mundane moments, they are worth investigating as well. Some of my greatest pleasures in navigating Cornell's database of articles have been in coming across things of middling quality but with their own wisdom to impart—the story of a wealthy woman suddenly impoverished who shocks her set by going to work, for instance, or a collection of poems by a second-rate poet in which, likely fresh from an astronomy lecture, he grapples with the idea of the universe being filled with cold, indifferent stars, and reaches a nihilistic conclusion. Their struggle to convey meaning, their lack of mastery, feels more familiar to me than the works of Henry James, and has its own lessons to impart. These are works like the buildings obscured by skyscrapers, and you miss them on your way from landmark to landmark—yet they contain just as much life, just as much human energy.
Also, instead of worrying over a given “great” author's racism—Twain, say—where we must wrestle with ideology as we read, these old, unsanctified texts provide us with a clear, unfiltered way to look at the sins of ages past, and we can criticize and contextualize their ideas without the canon pointing us in the eye. Reading the work of racists who were not great writers makes it much easier to understand the regular workaday machinery of racism in their era, and makes it correspondingly simpler to understand and contextualize a writer like Twain, or Harriet Beecher Stowe, to put aside the ideas which have not stood against time and credit those which are unique and valuable to us now.
As I travel all these literary paths, I want a map badly, or rather a set of maps, like those Moretti is making. I want them to be not just attractive displays of statistical information, but interactive, capable of overlap and re-focusing. Cornell's database is one such map. Ftrain is, in its gimpy way, a map, a hierarchy, a testament to both my efforts in its volume and my laziness in its sloppy organization. On Harper's I've done a little better, finding ways to use time and topic as axes, although I've yet to find a good way to truly fly in a Moretti-style airplane and look down at all that content, aside from a huge, barely readable chart of graphs and nodes that I created using some charting software, and some preliminary experiments with lighting up different nations on a world map according to how much coverage the site gives them, and making those nations clickable.
All of which is why I find Moretti's work important. I don't deny the efforts of those scholars seeking to find out why a given piece of text is essential, drawing conclusions about our culture from a word-by-word analysis, or the efforts of those proclaiming the value of the canon in our lives. They have their points, well-stated and thought through. But, like the denizens who search through tunnels under New York and break into abandoned buildings just to see, I want to go exploring on my own, below the spires, whether pawing at old journals and books of the last 500 years in their scanned-in form, or clicking through the cascade of contemporary web writing. I want an atlas so that I can locate myself on the search for new half-lights.