Books I Read in 2013

A list of the new (to me) fiction I read this year. Criticism, theory, and rereads for work excluded. (See also lists from 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009.)

  • Bennett, Ronan. The Catastrophist (2001). A possible text for the Congo class, though I’d probably go with something by Mabanckou instead.
  • Coetzee, J. M. The Childhood of Jesus (2013). Very good, as always.
  • Fountain, Ben. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012). Wanted to like this one, as the consensus best novel of the recent wars, but it left me kind of cold.
  • Klosterman, Chuck. The Visible Man (2011). Interesting premise: Try to think through all the implications of selective invisibility.
  • Kushner, Rachel. The Flamethrowers (2013). Not sure it’s as good as everyone says, but it is good.
  • Ledgard, J. M. Submergence (2013). Two-thirds of a really good book. The African sections are wonderful; the oceanography bits, not so much. Has the same problem Richard Powers does in writing about scientists — can’t get over a fawning love of science itself that finds expression as insufferably polymathic scientists.
  • Mantel, Hilary. Bring Up the Bodies (2012). I’m a shameless fan. The last Wolf Hall book is coming soon, right? Please?
  • Nutting, Alissa. Tampa (2013). The comparisons to Lolita are entirely unearned, though I suppose one could do worse than “not as good as Nabokov.”
  • Pava, Sergio De La. A Naked Singularity (2012). Best book I’ve read in a long time.
  • Pynchon, Thomas. Bleeding Edge. (2013) Really enjoyed this; as with Coetzee, I’m a sucker for everything Pynchon writes.
  • Saunders, George. Tenth of December (2013). Pretty much as good as everyone says, though I still never know what to do with short stories.
  • Winterbach, Ingrid. The Book of Happenstance. (2011). An interesting, patient novel, translated from Afrikaans.

A dozen books in all. Once again, not setting any records, but an enjoyable year. I’m on leave next fall, so may do a bit better in 2014. In the meantime, I’ve just started Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire

New Article in ALH

My article, “The Geographic Imagination of Civil War-Era American Fiction,” is in the latest issue of American Literary History (which happens to be the 100th issue of the journal). The easiest way to get it is probably via Muse (direct link, paywall), though it’s also available from Oxford (publisher of ALH, temporarily free to all). If your institution doesn’t subscribe to either of those outlets, drop me a line and I’ll send you a PDF offprint. I’m really pleased to see the piece in print, especially in an issue with so many people whose work I admire.

The article presents some of my recent work on geolocation extraction in a form that’s more complete than has been possible in the talks I’ve given over the last year or so. There’s more coming on a number of fronts: geographic attention as a function of demographic and economic factors, a wider historical scope, a (much) larger corpus, some marginally related studies of language use in the nineteenth century (with my students Bryan Santin and Dan Murphy), and more. Looking forward to sharing these projects in the months ahead.

Video of My Talk on Geolocation at Illinois

I gave a talk on my recent work — titled “Where Was the American Renaissance: Computation, Space, and Literary History in the Civil War Era” — as part of the Uses of Scale planning meeting at Illinois earlier this month. Ted Underwood — convener of the meeting and driving force behind the Uses of Scale project — has posted a video of the event, which includes my talk as well as Ted’s extended intro and a follow-up round table discussion on future directions in literary studies.

The event was lovely; my thanks to Ted for the invitation, to the attendees for some very useful discussion, and to the Mellon Foundation and the University of Illinois for funding the Uses of Scale project, with which I’ve been involved as a co-PI over the past year.

Books I Read in 2012

As in past years, here’s a list of the new (to me) fiction I read this year. Criticism and rereads are excluded.

  • Döblin, Alfred. Berlin Alexanderplatz. (1929) Feel like I should have gotten more from this.
  • Farrell, J.G. Troubles. (1970) Not a fan.
  • Gass, William H. The Tunnel. (1995) Equal parts intriguing and frustrating.
  • Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. (2007) Of some professional interest re: memoir-like fiction.
  • Dyer, Geoff. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. (2009)
  • Houellebecq, Michel. The Map and the Territory. (2010)
  • Banks, Russell. Lost Memory of Skin. (2011)
  • Phillips, Arthur. The Tragedy of Arthur. (2011) I like Phillips a lot, but my interest waned.
  • Russell, Karen. Swamplandia! (2011) Taught this; an interesting failure, I think.
  • Whitehead, Colson. Zone One. (2011) Taught this, too. Liked it even more after reading Andy Hoberek’s piece on it in CL.
  • Johnson, Adam. The Orphan Master’s Son. (2012) Liked this.
  • Marcus, Ben. The Flame Alphabet. (2012) Didn’t do much for me; too precious by half.
  • Miller, Madeline. The Song of Achilles. (2012) Am liking this a lot.
  • Stein, Leigh. The Fallback Plan. (2012)

An enjoyable year, as always. I particularly liked Zone One and Song of Achilles (the latter of which I’m still working on). Not sure where I’ll start in 2013; I’m a couple of chapters into The Book of Happenstance by Ingrid Winterbach (which I like so far) and I have a handful of others waiting on my Kindle.

Books I Read in 2011

As I did last year and the year before, here’s a list of books I read for the first time in 2011. Mostly confined to fiction, but including two popular-academic books that I (uncharacteristically) read from cover to cover.

  • Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun (2008).
  • Aira, César. The Literary Conference (2010).
  • Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities (1978).
  • Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red (1998).
  • DeLillo, Don. Libra (1988). [Ducks head in shame.]
  • Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010).
  • Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011).
  • Johns, Adrian. Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates (2010).
  • McCarthy, Tom. Remainder (2007).
  • Miéville, China. The City and the City (2009).
  • Millet, Lydia. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005).
  • O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods (1994).
  • Sayles, John. A Moment in the Sun (2011).
  • Vollmann, William. Europe Central (2005).
  • Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King (2011).

Not a record-breaking effort, I’d say, but a pretty fun year. I didn’t get to either Theroux or Esterházy as I’d hoped, but there’s always next year, right? Same goes for Dickens — I picked up and put down Our Mutual Friend a couple of times and keep meaning to go back to it. Oh, and I’m maybe twenty pages into Arthur Phillips’ The Tragedy of Arthur, which seems nifty so far. I’ve gotten a couple of other recommendations, but am always happy to have more …

Bowker Publishing Stats for 2010

I overlooked last month’s announcement from Bowker concerning the number of books published in 2009 and 2010. Condensed version: fiction is flat at a little under 50,000 new titles, literature dropped off a lot (~30%, to 8k from 11k), though if memory serves, “literature” is a catch-all for anthologies and books about literature; all novels fall under fiction, even when they’re categorized as “literary fiction.” Poetry and drama were off, too.

But—and this may explain much of the drop/flatness—“non-traditional” publication was way, way up. Like, into the millions up. Bowker reports about 316k new traditional titles across all categories for 2010, against almost 2.8 million non-traditional (mostly POD reprints of public domain works). Until c. 2006, the ratios were reversed at about 10:1 traditional:non-traditional. My guess would be that there’s also, buried in that landslide of reprints, a small but very non-trivial number of books that might in the past have been published traditionally, but now are sold direct via Amazon and author sites without the intervention of a regular publisher (note the presence of significant numbers from Lulu, AuthorHouse, XLibris, etc.).

Take-away point: There’s a lot of new fiction out there. I’ll assume most of it is awful, but then most of it has always been awful. It’s only that the sea of words is a lot bigger now.

Maps of American Fiction

A quick post to show some recent research on named places in nineteenth-century American fiction. I’m interested in the range and distribution of places mentioned in these books as potential indicators of cultural investments in, for example, internationalism and regionalism. I’m also curious about the extent to which large-scale changes (both cultural and formal) are observable in the overall literary production of this (or any) period. The mapping work I’ve done so far doesn’t come close to answering those questions, but it’s part of the larger inquiry.

The Maps

The maps below were generated using a modest corpus of American novels (about 300 in total) drawn from the Wright American Fiction Project at Indiana by way of the MONK project. They show the named locations used in those books; points correspond to everything from small towns through regions, nations and continents. Methodological details and (significant) caveats follow.

1851. 37 volumes (~2.5M words), with data cleanup.

1852. 44 volumes (~3.0M words), minimal cleanup.

1874. 38 volumes (~3.1M words), minimal cleanup.

The Method

Texts were taken from MONK in XML (TEI-A) format with hand-curated metadata. Location names were identified and extracted using Pete Warden’s simple gazetteering script GeoDict, backed by MaxMind’s free world cities database. [Note that there’s currently a bug in the database population script for Geodict. Pete tells me it’ll be fixed in the next release of his general-purpose Data Science Toolkit, into which Geodict has now been folded. But for now, you probably don’t want to use Geodict as-is for your own work.] I tweaked GeoDict to identify places more liberally than usual, which results (predictably) in fewer missed places but more false positives. The locations for 1851 were reviewed pretty carefully by hand; I haven’t done the same yet for the other years. Maps were generated in Flash using Modest Maps with code cribbed shamelessly from the awesome FlowingData Walmart project. This means that it should be relatively easy to turn the static maps above into a time-animated series, but I haven’t done that yet.


As I pointed out in my talk on canons, the international scope and regional clustering of places in 1851 strike me as interesting. See the talk for (slightly) more discussion. Moving forward to 1874—and bearing in mind that we’re looking at dirty data best compared with the similarly dirty 1852—the density of named places in the American west increases after the Civil War and it looks as though a distinct cluster of places in the south central U.S is beginning to emerge.

The changes form 1852 to 1874 are (1) intriguing, (2) but also mostly as expected, and (3) more limited in scope than one might have imagined, given that they sit a decade on either side of the periodizing event of American history. I think an important question raised by a lot of work in corpus analysis (the present research included) concerns exactly what constitutes a “major” shift in form or content.

I’m going to avoid saying anything more here because I don’t want to build too much argument on top of a dataset that I know is still full of errors, but I wanted to put the maps up for anyone to puzzle through. If you have thoughts about what’s going on here, I’d love to hear them.


A couple of notes and caveats on errors:

  • Errors in the data are of several kinds. There are missed locations, i.e., named places that occur in the underlying text but are not flagged as such. Some places that existed in the nineteenth century don’t exist now. Some colloquial names aren’t in the database. And of course a book can be set in, say, New York City and yet fail to use the city’s name often or at all, possibly preferring street addresses or localisms like “the Village.” Also, GeoDict as configured identifies all country and continent names with no restrictions, but requires cities and regions (e.g., U.S. states) either to be paired with a larger geographic region (“Brooklyn, New York,” not “Brooklyn”) or preceded by “in” or “at” as indicators of place. You pretty much have to do this to keep the false positive rate manageable.
  • But there are still false positives. There’s a city somewhere in the world named for just about any common English name, adjective, military rank, etc. “George,” for instance, is a city in South Africa. “George, South Africa,” if it ever occurred in a text, would be identified correctly. But “In George she had found a true friend” produces a false positive. When I clean the data, I eliminate almost all proper names of this kind and investigate anything else that looks suspicious. Note that the cluster of places in southern Africa visible in the (uncleaned) 1852 and 1874 maps is almost certainly attributable to this kind of error. Travis Brown tells me he’s seen the same thing in his own geocoding experiments.
  • Then there are ambiguous locations, usually clear in context but not obvious to GeoDict. “Cambridge” is the most frequent example. Some study suggests that most American novels in the corpus mean the city in Massachusetts, but that’s surely not true of every instance. Most other ambiguities are much more easily resolved, but they still require human attention.