If you pick up Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 and flip through it, it’ll look like something you might see in The Believer. Your eye will be drawn to all these interesting diagrams with suggestive titles like “Colonial wealth in British sentimental novels.” First you’ll ponder those, and then when you sit down to actually read this book, you will find that it is literary criticism, albeit literary criticism of the best kind possible–genuinely innovative and genuinely readable. (And in fact, Moretti has something rare in an academic critic–a fresh, engaging prose style.)
So what is this book? Well, let me tell you. Franco Moretti is an unabashed lover of the 19th-century novel (he says his favorite book of all is Pere Goriot by Balzac). That’s great for a lot of reasons, but it’s kind of a bad thing if you’re a professional academic. After all, what’s left to be said about the 19th-century novel?
Faced with this questions, Moretti’s two options were thus: cultivate his nest in some godforsaken plot of land that no one else would even think about touching (maybe the epistolary strategies of the canine fiction written by Jane Austen’s aunt’s daughter’s husband); or find some way to write about the good books that no one had ever come up with before.
Moretti chose the latter, and from necessity was born his singular, statistical approach to literary criticism. This book is something like Guns, Germs, and Steel meets The Western Canon, wherein Moretti crunches the numbers and discovers how geography was destiny for not only the great European writers of the 19th-century but also European fiction as a whole.
The best part about Atlas is Moretti’s readings of his own data, which go far beyond the book s at hand to make interesting statements about literature in general. The book is hugely readable and hugely illuminating. It might just hook you on Moretti’s brand of lit crit and get you deep into his backlist.