Moretti’s Method: An exercise in stretching my brain

This semester my brain has been expanding and reforming its conceptions of what it knows. Although it is painful and difficult at times, I believe that this is what a good education should always be doing for me. This week I read Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, and Trees for my digital history class and I am still trying to wrap my mind around how it forces me to re-conceptualize my understandings of how to do history. I must confess, at times this book left me baffled; I had no idea what Moretti was talking about. In part, I think this is because he assumes the reader has a deep literary knowledge and he leaves out many explanations for the sake of brevity. Despite this barrier, I found my mind stretched and reformed in reading this book. This semester I am also taking a Historical Methods class and as a result, I found myself reading Moretti’s work for method. In my opinion, Graphs, Maps, and Trees, asks a historian to reconsider his or her methodology by using interdisciplinary tools, questioning the traditional and accepted, and using big picture analysis.

Moretti’s book is based on the premise that using tools from other disciplines can enlighten and change our understanding of our research. He begins his book by noting that the graphs, maps, and trees he will be using come from “three disciplines with which literary studies have had little or no interaction.”[1] Using tools from other disciplines can provide new insights and ways of looking at our topics. Digital Humanities, with its emphasis on collaboration, lends itself particularly well to this methodology. By working with a variety of disciplines we can discover new things about our own discipline. Moretti also emphasizes repeatedly throughout his book that when we discover new things with these tools, we need to be careful to not get lost in the excitement of seeing something new and realize that interpretation is still needed. Tools like graphs, maps, and trees can help us see new questions but we still need to do the historians work of interpretation.[2] Along with this, we need to remember that the tool should not be used just for the sake of something new: “Do maps add anything, to our knowledge of literature?… what do they do that cannot be done with words; because, if it can be done with words, then maps are superfluous.”[3] We should not use digital tools simply to replicate what historians have traditionally done on paper. An interdisciplinary use of tools should produce new questions that prompt innovative interpretations.

In using these new tools of analysis, we should also question the traditional, accepted methods of analysis. In his book, Moretti focuses on rethinking the singular novel, from a select canon of works, as the focus of literature studies. As historians, we should also consider what we take for granted as the focus of our work, and continue to question that focus. Moretti urges “A more rational literary history. That is the idea.”[4] Our goal should be for a more rational practice of history. For example, in his section on maps, Moretti notes that “narrative space is not linear hear, it is circular.”[5] We should also be considering how we can use tools (such as new digital ones) to move history beyond the linear, time-based model.  The key here is to rethink what we accept as the pillars of our discipline, question why they are, and consider what we can gain from reimaging those methods.

The final major takeaway that I found in Moretti’s method is his big picture analysis. In his introduction, Moretti posits that distant reading of sources can tell us something new; “The reality of the text undergoes a process of deliberate reduction and abstraction…where distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge.”[6] For historians, what sources and evidence tell them are their key to their interpretations. What would it do to our interpretation if we took a step back from the content of our sources and instead we examined our sources as part of a long history of that type of source? Moretti argues that by taking this step back we can uncover new patterns. He shows how graphs can help us to see the need to explain “the pattern as a whole, not just one of its phases.”[7] Similarly, he argues that maps can help us to see patterns by “extract[ing] it from the narrative flow.”[8] As a historian this encourages me to reexamine my focus on my sources and consider new ways of placing them in history.

Having written out these thoughts, I believe that I am only scratching at the surface of many different ways of rethinking historical methods. In many ways, I am asking more questions and proposing more ways of doing things than really providing any concrete examples or solutions. But I think that is okay. This is a start to my re-arranging my brain, and I can carry these concepts with me into my research. I do not believe that we should throw traditional history out the window. However, understanding why I am doing everything I do, and considering if other models or tools would work better for me is very important. The changes that history is undergoing with the gradual growth of digital history make this an opportune time to reexamine our assumptions and our accepted methodology. Stretching our brains is necessary to strengthen them.


[1] Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, (London: Verso, 2005), 1.

[2] Moretti, 9,26, 29.

[3] Moretti, 35.

[4] Moretti, 4.

[5] Moretti, 37.

[6] Moretti, 1.

[7] Moretti, 9.

[8] Moretti, 39.


3 thoughts on “Moretti’s Method: An exercise in stretching my brain

  1. Christine, I like your connection with reading this at the same time you are taking a traditional methods course and how works like this exercise the mind. Moretti’s book was certainly a challenge, and the afterword even more so. I think the complexity demonstrated the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration. Every time we discuss this idea, I am reminded of the Bruno Latour piece and his notion that we needed to work on re-tying the gordian knot. The subjects we study are very complex, so it makes sense that we need to learn different vocabularies and ways to conceptualize data.

    1. I completely agree Jenny. As a person that is interested in a variety of different disciplines, the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration is very clear to me. Part of the reason I am pursuing Public History is because of the opportunities it offers to connect history with other disciplines. This is also part of the reason why I am intrigued by Digital History. Moretti’s piece served as another great example to me of how breaking down the barriers between disciplines can strengthen history.

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