Sunday, June 24, 2007

Google books map feature

Thanks to "Savage Minds," the anthropology blog, I've just come across the new feature of Google books that maps the locations mentioned in the text. Here's the post, and here's a sample map. You hit "about this book" and then scroll down to the bottom of the page. For instance, scroll down on this page to see the map of Hardt and Negri's Empire.

I wonder if anyone has yet noticed that this dovetails nicely with the work that Franco Moretti outlines in his Maps, Graphs, Trees -- a book that I recommend to anyone who wants to think about how technology might change the study of literature in a fundamental way. In fact, Google Books maps Moretti's book. (Let's face it, one reason that I like Moretti's book is that it gives a lot people fits.)

For now, though, this mapping feature of Google Books doesn't yet extend to fiction (as far as I can tell).

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Blogger Brian said...

Thanks for posting this. A very interesting project.

I don't know if this would be particularly interesting in its application to fiction. In the first place, there is the difficulty of finding where all the events happen in many books where the setting is completely fictional or not so well determined. (Imagine trying to map the locations in "Bartleby." It would work better in Moby Dick because you would have all the crew members' places of origin that would get mapped. But there's no way to really trace where the Pequod goes in the ocean (as far as I can remember).

But I wonder if there is a tendency in the canon for literature to be more firmly restricted to one particular place. This rootedness in one locale seems characteristic of Romantic poetry and realist fiction. Again, you can name some other places--the different towns in England where the characters journey to in an Austen novel, for instance. But the novels that, to my mind, would rely on a large number of places are typically genre fiction. And we all know how the academy feels about teaching genre fiction. Although that is definitely changing.

I wasn't aware of Moretti's book. Looks fascinating. I'll get it tomorrow.

9:12 PM  
Blogger Michael E. said...

Actually, one could make a very, very precise map of "Bartleby"; with enough knowledge of old New York, his office is easy to locate, and there are several other precise locations mentioned in the story (including the dead letter office).

But the whole point is that one can empirically demonstrate whether our intuitive notions about literature and place are in fact correct. Moreover, Moretti's point is that we should be producing and considering data beyond a single text, and instead be looking at broad genres or periods. So, you might produce a map of all of the places mentioned in fiction published in the U.S. between the Civil War and World War I. What would that look like? What would it tell you? This is what Moretti calls "distant reading," and (for obvious reasons) it hasn't really caught in because of our disciplinary grounding in reading of a closer kind.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Lauren said...

Even looking at the locations of a single book can be very revealing. I was struck by the lack of references to South America, the Caribbean, and Central America in _Empire_ .

3:53 PM  
Blogger sap said...

This is a feature of Google Maps that my friend (the infamous one who works for Google) is working on developing as a tool for teaching. She and I once spoke about this in terms of tracing artistic influence geographically. To look at how a work of art or artist compels others. There is apparently a tool you can get/buy from Google that allows you to develop these kinds of conceptual maps so that when you run the cursor over the dot it doesn't just tell you the city but how that place relates to the idea/work being mapped.

More food for thought.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Michael E. said...

The article version of Moretti's "Maps" chapter (how different from the book, I don't know), is here:

By the way, just to clarify, what has made people cautious about what Moretti advocates is not the maps (or the graphs or trees) but the idea of treating novels as sets of data. As he describes it in his book (which I haven't read since it came out), he literally has a lab of graduate students encoding data on novels.

The Valve, by the way, had an "event" on his book. Here:

8:46 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Well, Moretti's method falls into the realm of what Kate Hayles, Lev Manovich, and others have beens saying about databases--as opposed to narratives--for the last 4-5 years or so. A different genre of analysis that becomes possible now that we have more advanced tools (and labs of grad students to do the work).

I think what is interesting about the project--without having read it--is how it might be pushing literary analysis more toward an "exact science," something like the New Critics. Except this time, instead of pretending that one particular meaning is inherent to a poem, this data set or another really is in the literary work. What it tells you is something different than the close reading we are already doing. It would seem to draw closer to anthropology, perhaps. But we all know that English types borrow from every available discipline, so I don't know why we shouldn't do the same here. Getting it accepted as tenure fodder may be another thing, however.

And I stand corrected on Bartleby. I was thinking globally, rather than locally. That'll teach me to take bumper stickers as dogma.

9:43 PM  

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