Navigating an ocean of books: the contemporary atlas for literature
1 October 2020
words by @ale_theia
It has been at least five years since I read Shipping out, David Foster Wallace’s essay about his first and last experience aboard a Caribbean cruise, first published in 1996 on commission from Harper’s Magazine, and then finished along with other essays in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. I have never set sail aboard a ship of that size to make a sea voyage of such length – it’s always on the to-do list, but there are too many more before. Who knows what it feels like to spend incalculable hours sailing, with no way out, and then touch land after a few days in places where different languages are spoken, the colors of the landscape never resemble each other, and the stay cannot be extended, because the journey must always continue.
One thing that I really like to do, and that is more immediate, especially in 2020, is to surf the Internet in search of things I don’t know, or new connections that, starting from familiar shores, take me where I hadn’t landed before. Sometimes it is also there, in a good search in the midst of the infinity of the web, that inspiration is hidden. Other times it happens instead to find it in books which, as we will soon discover here on Frames, are in turn a journey into worlds that we do not know – or that sometimes we know all too well, because something inside them corresponds to us, at the intersection between stories, characters, a vocabulary that sounds familiar. Think what could happen by combining the two.
In a wandering afternoon hunting for ideas, I found myself exploring Google’s Art & Cultures section dedicated to the so-called Experiments, where it is possible to create melodies with the exceptional help of Bach and Mozart, discovering that clumsy attempts at assembling geometric shapes are visually more like famous works of art than you could have imagined, or more simply to discover the globe from the perspective of a tender penguin. The most beautiful of the experiments offered by Google, however, I think is Ocean of Books, a project that invites us to explore authors and literary works as if they were islands in a great ocean, geographically located by virtue of proximity that perhaps we had never imagined, at least not displayed in this way.
The arrangement of these earth constellations are based on what Google defines a “complex relationship on the web” between one author and another, then reworked with the help of a machine learning technique (Uniform Manifold Approximation and Projection, in acronym UMAP). Thanks to the elegant graphic rendering worthy of maps of other times, from above we can navigate in a figurative and figurative double sense through the names and keywords of world literature: each island or small archipelago, each of a different shape, corresponds to a author, for a total of 100 thousand names belonging to different eras; each city, represented with a dot, corresponds to a work, in a census of 140 thousand, divided between large thematic archipelagos, from poetry to history, from children’s literature to jurisprudence, politics and sociology texts.
Widening and narrowing the perspective, or typing in the search bar, we discover that a few hundred meters from the island dedicated to David Foster Wallace, made up of headlands and inlets, there are the English writer who lived in the eighteenth century Samuel Richardson, the ‘American fantasy author Jim Butcher and Donna Leon, American author who set her detective novels in Venice. A stone’s throw, or boat, from that genius Albert Einstein – without whose theories of relativity, Google reminds us, the GPS system probably would not exist – a plethora of intellectuals, from the French philosopher Luc Ferry to the German physicist Harald Fritzsch , passing through colleague Walter Thirring.
Close to the shores of mystery queen Agatha Christie, the author of Perfume – the story of a murderer Patrick Süskind, and from Salinger to Joyce you could get there by swimming. Less obvious, but understandable, is the closeness between Max Weber’s volumes of sociology, Jeffery Deaver’s thriller novels, Amanda Knox’s autobiography and composer John Cage, but so be it. Getting lost in this ocean of titles, references, history is a pleasure that we did not hope to be able to grant, even if it is difficult to beat the sound of the waves, or the pages.