I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Old Europe, Aging America

Joe Cleary
Italian by birth and intellectual formation, now long resident on the west coast of the United States and professor at Stanford University, Franco Moretti is one of the major Anglophone literary critics of the contemporary moment. His early works Signs Taken For Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms (1983) and The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture (1987) are milestone studies in their areas, and his subsequent Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to Garcia Márquez (1995), is something just as interesting, a flawed but wonderfully flamboyant masterpiece. Distant Reading has been published alongside The Bourgeoisie: Between History and Literature (2013) and the two volumes have been reviewed as companion pieces, though in many respects Distant Reading is better read as the third and capstone-volume in a trilogy that includes Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900 (1993) and Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History (2005). These latter studies represent a deviation rather than departure from the more historical materialist and formalist concerns of the early volumes towards preoccupations with literary world systems, evolutionary theory, digital humanities and quantitative data analysis. Moretti, that is to say, has not abandoned his earlier interest in the history and sociology of literary forms, but, cumulatively, the interests on display from Atlas of the European Novel onwards have impelled him towards a mode of criticism that now addresses itself to considerably larger scales of analysis (“literary world systems”) and to the massification of research data (as enabled by online digital technologies and networks analysis). Hence the title that names these new commitments, Distant Reading. However, its title notwithstanding, Distant Reading repays close reading. All of the essays collected in Distant Reading have been previously published, and all but three have appeared in New Left Review, a journal for which Moretti has long served more or less as house literary critic, and the volume that now gathers these pieces is published by Verso, another New Left vehicle. Effectively, this means that Moretti’s work carries something of an imprimatur from the British or Anglophone left, and, even though he has left behind any obvious signs of his early Italian Marxist affiliations, he conceives of his latest critical ventures in Atlas of the European Novel, Graphs, Maps, Trees and Distant Reading as contributions to the elaboration of a revised mode of historical materialism, one less invested in the critical grand narratives that have come down to us from Kulturkritik or Lukács or the Frankfurt School and correspondingly more attentive to the possibilities thrown open to contemporary research by world systems theory and…

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