Novel Reading and Reimagining

Photo: Linda Cicero

While researching the catalogs of private lending libraries in 19th-century Britain and France, Franco Moretti was overwhelmed by the thousands of titles he had never heard of.

"The extent of the archive is unimaginable," he says. "I had not expected so many novels to have been published and forgotten."

Those works, along with the canonical greats, may well find a new readership at the Center for the Study of the Novel that Moretti launched on campus this fall. Moretti, who joined the Stanford English faculty after teaching for 10 years at Columbia University, hopes to replicate the excitement about literary works that he has experienced in his native Italy.

"Book discussions are something that happen in Europe not in the academy but in the public sphere," he says. "In my 20s, almost every week there would be a book presented in Rome at the cultural branches of the political parties or the trade unions that would show you different ways of looking at the subject matter. The format was fascinating and very beautiful."

Moretti's latest work, Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900 (Verso) is filled with maps that explore the geography of Jane Austen's Britain and Dickens's London. He plots out dwellings of characters in Oliver Twist and shows who traveled where in Our Mutual Friend. "I have met one genius--my math professor in middle school," Moretti says. "She taught me that logic and imagination should not be conceived as opposites, and what I personally would like to do is apply a lot of logic to the study of the products of the imagination."

At the first of three conferences the center will host this year, scholars explained why cultural and religious forces in China and Europe considered the novel a challenge to their authority and banned it at every opportunity. "When you see the novel as the object of a struggle, you see it in a different light," Moretti suggests. "The truth is that the genre might not have happened, and so it is dangerous for us to take the novel for granted."

In addition to the conferences, the center will host three public debates about historical and contemporary issues and also post essays and dissertations on the Web (novel.stanford.edu) for discussion by the international salon.