At last I can say I finished Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees. It is a book of three essays, well, actually four is you count the Afterword by Alberto Piazza. I found the Graphs essay pretty interesting. I didn’t find the Maps essay all that engaging and wondered why would anyone bother making maps. But since reading it I have decided that mapping an element of a book can be very handy especially after seeing Emily’s “map” of The Dodecahedron by Paul Glennon. Now, the Trees essay was really interesting even though I didn’t quite understand all of it.

What Moretti does in this essay is discuss how using “evolutionary trees [in literature] constitute[s] morphological diagrams, where history is systematically correlated with form.” He talks a lot about Darwin and divergence and makes a “genetic tree” of linguistic families and asks if language evolves by diverging, why can’t literature too?

Moretti recreates a tree that he and his students created in class one day based on the use of clues in the genesis of detective fiction. The tree shows how the use of clues in Doyle and other writers of the time diverge and how, certain usages diverge and die because they weren’t successful and other usages are successful and how those evolve and produce offshoots, etc. It is a fascinating way to see relationships and how they develop or don’t.

The rest of the essay goes on to discuss whether divergence is truly a factor in literary history and if so, what that means. From my understanding of his argument the answer is a qualified yes. As to what it means:

[I]f the basic mechanism of change is that of divergence, then cultural history is bound to be random, full of false starts, and profoundly path-dependent: a direction once taken can seldom be reversed, and culture hardens into a true ‘second nature’ – hardly a benign metaphor.

In his evolutionary tree model, Moretti envisions it as a lens through which we can get a potentially revealing view of world literature by creating a “comparative morphology.” An interesting idea. I would be curious as to what sorts of comparisons could be made and what they would reveal about the evolution of various aspects of literature in different cultures.

Moretti briefly sums up his book and his ideas in the three essays as a “materialist conception of form.” He believes form is the most “profoundly social aspect of literature” and sees “form as force.” He understands that what he proposes won’t come close to explaining everything. Seeing as how his approach in this book is quite scientific in many ways, I couldn’t help but think of whether there could be a unified theory of everything in literature as scientists seek one in physics and whether we would even want one. Anyway, Moretti’s aim with the book is to open “new conceptual possibilities.” Even though there were times I had no idea what he was talking about, I think he succeeded because I feel like I have finished this book with an expanded view of how literature can be studied and what sorts of interesting things might be revealed from, what is to me, a very different approach.

There is a book called Reading Graphs, Maps, Trees that is a collection of responses by a variety of specialists and non-specialists and contributed to an online book event at The Valve. I probably won’t read this, but I am glad to know about it in case I change my mind.