Category Archives: Books

Divisio Operis et Paratexte dans la tradition manuscrite du roman médiévale

The Long Tail of Digital Shelves

Far from having been threatened, not to mention killed by web culture and new media, literature played an essential part in the developing of groundbreaking commercial web based services as Amazon, originally established so as to sell books online. Moreover, literature found plenty of room in second generation web-based services such as social-networking sites, wikis, blogs, and folksonomies, aiming to facilitate interaction, creativity, sharing and collaboration. In some cases, literature even represents the main interest very crowded web based communities share through social network services, as aNobii, polarizing readers from Far East and South-Western Europe, and LibraryThing, mostly attracting readers from America, UK and India, smaller communities of english readers being even shared by Goodreads and Shelfari .

Such literary Social Network Systems make it possible for readers to upload on digital platforms the books they own, to provide personal comments and remarks and to interact with other readers according to their literary interests. That’s why a compared assessment of public data provided by such systems makes it possible to investigate the extent of literary canons from the vantage point of people self-identifying themselves as enthusiastic readers. Of course, being communities very plastic and unstable in terms of geographical distribution and linguistic identity, not to mention literary tastes of their members, the present assessment is very likely subject to dramatic changes in time. Still, some very general remarks may enlighten meaningful aspects of literary social network services that would eventually outlast plasticity and mobility of massive data provided by an equally plastic and mobile community of book-readers.

First off, interesting remarks emerge in respect of a crucial issue as the one concerning ‘nationality of books’. Indeed, literary canons established by enthusiastic readers uploading their books on digital shelves seem to stretch linguistic borders traditionally defining what national literature a novel, a poem, an essay, a literary work in general belongs to. Basically, ‘national identity’ seems to be lost in translation, being books indexed, discussed and ranked on the basis of the language they have been read in. Cultural identity of novels and other literary works is basically defined in reader-based terms, reshaping the very concept of ‘nationality of books’ so as to fit the global system of world literature. Local language-based systems «think globally and act locally», that is they glocalize themseves incorporating foreign books by means of translation.

Basically, social network services supporting bibliographical catalogues of books directly uploaded by readers credit translation as a major factor determining uneven globalization of literary canons. South-Western European and Far Eastern systems seem to be extremely permeable to literary works originally written in foreign languages. Incorporation of foreign items mostly apply to English franchised series as Harry Potter’s saga and The Lord of the Ring, or Dan Brown’s super-pop page-turners. Some more books may be accommodated into local systems, since they are perceived as universal masterpieces or because they eventually fill occasional voids. Rather, English hegemony in world literary systems seems to reflect in substantial autonomy, not to say factual isolation of English language-speaking global community and regional ramifications. Indeed, it just seems flexible enough to be incorporating a few unavoidable masterpieces from literary systems based on different languages. Such evidence seems to confirm remarks formulated by Roberto Antonelli (2000: 334-335) about strengths and weaknesses of ‘imperial’ anglo-american canon, a very powerful and effective one when it comes to pervasively invade other systems, but basically unable to self-globalize itself by acquiring foreign references.

Discussing the novel as a genre in search of his own identity, Thomas Pavel (2002, then 2006) observed that the list of nobel prize awarded authors in the last fifty years mostly include novelists from everywhere in the world, restating both the global extent of the genre and his crucial position in literary global system. Accordingly, and predictably, the vast majority of popular books owned and uploaded on digital shelves by socially networked readers are novels. Predictably, Harry Potter’s series by J. K. Rowling and The Lord of the Ring trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien are amazingly popular on a global scenario, being featured among top 50 books in all far easter, european and american charts. This is of course due to franchise strategies based on popularity of blockbuster movies and reproduction of contents on all disposable platforms, exerting new convergence culture, as defined by Hanry Jenkins.

Dan Brown’s best sellers achieved the status of very global literary reference just on the basis of certified literary effectiveness, as other as in the case of literary sensations like Tuesdays with Morrie and The five people you meet in heaven by Mitch Albom, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini or La Sombra del Viento by Carlos Ruíz Zafón. Indeed, as it happens for franchised series, such books basically top every possible chart emerging from digital shelves featuring books uploaded by enthusiastic readers from Europe, America and Far East. Moreover, super-classic novels as O Alquimista by Paulo Coelho, Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel García Márquez, Das Parfüm by Patrick Süskind, Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí by Milan Kundera are equally top ranked in every pop list. They basically emerge as masterpieces, that is typical specimina of the genre, and, accordingly, they play a crucial role in the global scenario.

Some other literary classics from the 20th century play a global role to a minor extent, being just very popular in some of the major communities, as in the case of 1984 by George Orwell, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (English, Spanish, Italian) or L’étranger by Albert Camus and Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (French, Italian, Spanish). Some novels play a crucial role in limited regional systems, as the ones by Daniel Pennac, mostly uploaded on Italian and french shelves or Isable Allende, very popular on Spanish and Italian. Popularity of many others is just limited to their original birthplace, as in the case of masterpieces by Italo Calvino and very popular ones by Stefano Benni in Italy. Likewise, novels by Yu Hua are on top of pop lists emerging from Chinese shelves, but keep been basically absent from international rankings, besides the amazing success of internationally acclaimed movies by Zhang Yimou they actually inspired.

So, the novel prevail as a genre and some novels prevail as paradigmatic specimina of the genre, the extent of their popularity being absolutely global. Still, popular novels are always included into library systems entailing plenty of unpopular other ones and of course, plenty of books that doesn’t seem to be very popular and are not novels at all. That is, single digital shelves typically feature popular novels side by side with unlucky ones and, of course, essays, scientific books, comics, gardening manuals or other references. Digital shelves basically reflect a dynamic, interactive idea of private libraries, conceived as networks of books interacting with each other to a variable extent. Since, literary canons are interactive systems based on mutual interaction of objects they include, they shouldn’t anymore be addressed as series of independent entries, that is lists of books to be read or included into syllabi, as the one proposed by Harold Bloom (1994). Indeed, they actually work like plastic networks to be surfed, their emergent meaning being defined by permanently mobile paths connecting single items, which identity and shape is not given once and for all.

Assumption of books as milestones of a static literary system has to be addressed as faulty and misleading, as far as the identity of novels, poems, literary works of any kind is defined by their interaction with readers and other books they read. Connective patterns subject to permanent plastic reshaping, questioning status, position, presence of single literary works. For instance, Raimbaud’s Une saison en enfer plays a different role into reader-specific literary systems entailing Petrarca’s Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta and Elliot’s Waste Land rather than, say, Wedding Season by Katie Fforde or To Hell in High Heels by Helena Frith Powell. Since the same point apply to every single literary work uploaded into a digital library, every shelf can be basically addressed as an interactive system, defining the meaning of any item it features in terms of actual or potential connections with any other listed one and they all together.

Novels are sunk into systems which borders are designed so as to include essays, memories, philosophical investigation as comics or cookbooks. Moreover, pop books are integrated into digital shelves in which readers uploaded very peculiar, individual readings that are not very popular at all. In this sense, literary canons entailed by digitally shelves have to be addressed as long-tailed systems, in the terms described by Chris Anderson in his very popular works about The Long Tail, his book being even featured as #17 in the aNobii Semplified Chinese top list and #89 in the English one! The concept has been originally coined in a ground-breaking Wired article aiming to describe niche market strategy introduced by business companies as book-based one Amazon, realizing significant profit out of selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers, instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items.

Literary canons emerging from digital shelves may be addressed as long-tailed systems both in terms of being based on shelves featuring a few very pop books and plenty of peculiar, not-very-common other ones and in respect to the bottom-up process they arise from. Indeed, according to Anderson, the group of persons that buy the hard-to-find or ‘non-hit’ items is the customer demographic called the Long Tail. Likewise, ‘non hit’ Italian housewives as Australian free-climbers or Chinese accountants, or anybody else who may like to upload his library on a digital shelf, are basically contributing in defining plastic contemporary canons of World Literature with their own likings and personal options. If literary social network services will keep growing, future canons would hardly just depend on cultural strategies planned by critics, intellectual, academicians belonging to prestigious institutions, neither on marketing-based ones established by publishers, agents, editors, authors or journalists.

Needless to say, being the game still up and running, these very general remarks just aim to provide a first assessment of slowly emerging and self-defining system of World Literature from current point of view of digitally competent book readers. Present appraisal may be compared in the future with updated ones, so as to measure and assess variation in the literary system through time. Further investigations may even very interestingly focus on locative-sensible data, eventually describing very small local systems in respect of the general one. Moreover, emphasis on long-tailed systems may help in re-defining current literary systems as by identifying peculiar patterns of co-recurrency of clustered books on digital shelves, even taking into account locative and linguistic pertinence.

Still, even a very general assessment allows to conclude that literary social networks seem to be providing some interesting answers to the ‘problem’ of World Literature, as Franco Moretti (2000) properly defined it. In particular, collaborative nature of web 2.0 services and communities makes it possible to quickly embrace relevant segments of ‘the great unread’, as Margaret Cohen (1999: 23) defined the huge amount of literary leftovers stockpiled into analogical libraries. New paths for literary criticism emerge, while communities of readers keep sharing individual readings, so as to make it possible for everybody to surf through millions of books instead of sticking with the few hundreds listed in syllabi, histories of literatures, anthologies, typical canon in general. Indeed, huge amounts of typically unread books become part of global literary system and regional ramifications as far as occasional readers upload them on digital long-tailed shelves.



The full version of the paper, complete with accurate data, will be published on the International Literary Journal «Critica del Testo» 10/1 (2007). I am largely in debt with Alessandro Lanni, who introduced me to Convergence Culture and the Long Tail, Sergio Brunori for all the help with Chinese books, Christa Zacchei, who introduced me to aNobii, Nicoletta Costantini for plenty of suggestion helping a better understanding of literary social networks.



Anderson, C. 2006
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, New York, Hyperion.

Antonelli, R. 2000
Il canone Nobel, in «Critica del Testo» 3 (2000), pp. 321-336.

Bloom, H. 1994
The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, New York, Harcourt Brace & Company.

Cohen, M. 1999
The Sentimental Education of the Novel, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press.

Jenkins, H. 2006
Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, New York, New York University Press.

Moretti, F. 2000
Conjectures on World Literature, in «New Left Review» n.s. 1 (Jan.-Feb. 2000), pp. 54-68.

Pavel, T. 2002 then 2006
Il romanzo alla ricerca di se stesso, in Il romanzo. II. Le forme, a c. di F. Moretti, Torino, Einaudi, 2002, pp. 35-63, then reprinted as T. Pavel, The Novel in Search of Itself: A Historical Morphology, in The Novel. Volume 2: Forms and Themes, ed. by F. Moretti, Princeton (NJ), Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 3-32.

The Novel as an Emergent Feature

Novels are typically addressed as literary, cultural, eventually cognitive products, the amount of an artifact that has been created by someone or some process. Accordingly, they are commonly conceived as stories embedded into texts embedded into books. The three levels are usually considered as different features referred to the same object. For being a novel, a story has to be encoded through the set of symbolical features defining its textual layout. For being a text, the encoding has to be based on symbols engraved on a surface able to preserve it as an object: typically (and “lately”) paper. Consequently, a novel can’t be a novel without literacy and, as far as western literature is concerned, a novel can’t even be a novel out of a book containing it.
Besides, books are a very late feature in human cultures. Homo Sapiens Sapiens shaped narratives without books, even without literacy for the 99.99999% of his evolutionary history. Still, literary criticism can hardly figure out novels without books. Indeed, the process of ‘creating’ a novel and the one of ‘writing’ a novel are basically the same thing in common understanding. In many western languages the word “to write” counts as a synonym of “to create, to produce”, as far as the novel is the intended object the verbs refer to. Likewise, in many western languages words as “book” and “novel” count as synonyms.
There is historical evidence of the fact that the rise of the book as a medium and the rise of the novel as a literary genre fairly developed at the same pace, from papyrus age through parchment, till paper and print. That’s probably why the Digital Age questions at the same time the book as a medium and the novel as a genre. However, the historical and the theoretical extent of the questions both could be, and often they are, easily overrated, not to say generally mistaken, in absence of a previous, critical discussion taking into account unquestionable hystorical data.

Indeed, unquestionable evidence support the view that the same story, say the one about the unlucky love between Tristan and Ysolt, can be told by different narratives, say novels as the ones by Thomas, Beroul and, very likely, Chrétien de Troyes himself. Moreover, various versions of the same novel are affected by massive textual variation through the extent of their manuscript tradition. Similar evidence, concerning both fully different events taking place in different versions of the same story and the same events encoded through different textual features, apply to the medieval tradition of the Roman d’Alexandre, since four previous versions seem to have been collected by Alixandre de Paris into a single novel. Amazingly compelling evidence is provided by the textual tradition of the prose Lancelot-Graal cycle, featuring more than 200 different manuscript versions.
More in general, medieval manuscript traditions of early french romance novels from the 12th and the 13th century provide a wide range of textual variation, from simple graphical encoding, through the breakdown of narrative sequences, to the plastic assembly of episodes or even entire novels into new different ones. Basically, there is unquestionable evidence that variation is an unavoidable side-effect of manuscript copy or editing, due to the fact that the text is just the temporary-solid symbolic configuration the plastic non-symbolic flow of the story is shaped through. The textual borders can not be thick enough to avoid the narrative flow to outstrip them, hence the novel, as any chapter paragraph or other possible part it can be divided into, always exceeds the text it is encoded into. Very likely, textual variation depends on the mismatch between the story and the text it is encoded into, defining the extent of the decoding and recoding of a story. Indeed, since editors are human being, their eyes reading the exemplar are connected to their hands writing the copy on the blank page by means of a brain at work.

The philosophical investigations of J. R. Searle (1980 and 1990) recommend not to describe the mind as a mechanical processing informations device applying a set of algorithms and rules to some given symbolic code. As Searle pointed out with his chinese room argument and further insights, information-theory based accounts of the human mind operative patterns are utterly paradoxical. According to Searle’s philosophical point of view, neuroscientists are showing ever growing and pretty unquestionable evidences that the brain is not an instructions-driven engine, working as a Turing machine or as any other problem-solving mechanical device. Accordingly, the processes involved into manuscript textual transmission can not assume the editor’s brain as a mechanical device aimed to reproduce the text the way the exemplar provides him with. That’s why formalist, structuralist, semiotic and cognitive approaches failed to show any consistency at all, while looking for primary components of stories on the basis of the textual features they are supposed to be encoded into (Fuksas 2002).

Of course, the encoding process of stories into texts, the creative writing of an author on a blank page as the editing of a written one by an editor or the author himself imply the adoption of a symbolic code. Since stories have to be narrated, symbolic encoding has to be credited as an essential feature. Moreover, the symbolic encoding of a story is pragmatically limited, in terms that it implies at least one possible, accepted, placeable, recognizable textual configuration. At the same time, given that there is not any code before the encoding has been processed, being the code the result of the process, how can the textual encoding, or any other symbolic feature, be addressed as a crucial feature of the story itself? Moreover, how can the encoding process of a story into a text be described as a sort of translation?
Matter-of-factly, readers or listeners do not need to memorize phrases, sentences, words to understand a story. They hardly succeed in the task of retelling a single sentence of given narratives they read or listen to, even though they can retell what the story is about in different words, sentences, phrases. Very likely, if asked to retell a single narrative event extracted from a story, both listeners or readers would completely shuffle and replace most of the words, not to mention verbal tenses and conjugation modes.
Iser’s Wirkungstheorie investigated the aesthetic response triggered by the act of reading as the interaction, that is the dialectic relationship between text and reader. According to Iser (1972), the reading of the text «brings into play the imaginative and perceptive faculties of the reader, in order to make him adjust and even differentiate his own focus». Hence, even though the study of the literature arises from our concern with texts, there can be no denying in the importance of what happens to readers through texts. The point is, what happens to them?

Gibson’s Theory of Affordances and recent neuroscientific evidences concerning mirror neurons suggest that the decoding of narrative actions very likely induce motor facilitation, triggering action potential as the planning, the observation or the the auditory clues associated to corresponding actual actions do. Acts as ‘reading a novel’ or ‘listening to a story’ very likely trigger action potential entailed by textual descriptions. That is, textual decoding of narratives may very likely lead to the actual embodiment of described perceptual events, actions and emotional correlates by means of resonance and mirror matching of corresponding sensory experiences, motor schemes and interoceptive ramifications.
Brief, according to an ecological approach to storytelling described events entailing perception, action and emotional correlates are embodied via mirror matching, that is processed according to corresponding percepual, motor and emotional patterns.
Since embodiment of stories has to be credited as the very crucial feature making it possible the processing and the understanding of narratives, the symbolic encoding of narratives into actual texts has to be addressed as an emergent feature. Accordingly, a given text can be defined as a sequence of symbols encoding a story, but can not be identified with the story itself, any story being potentially encoded into infinite texts. Being possible to encode the ‘same’ story through potentially infinite symbolic assets, none of them can be identified with the story itself, at least not as the only way to tell the ‘same’ story. Indeed, perceptual events, actions and emotions decoded from novels, stories, narratives in general by means of mirror matching, are saved and stored as sensory experiences, motor schemes, feelings and behaviors into isolated or combined complex patterns, outlasting the textual features they are symbolically encoded into, that are soon gone and forgotten.

«Natural conditions» still applied to medieval manuscript tradition given that between the eyes reading the exemplar and the hand writing the copy the brain was still able to process variation on a scribal, editorial basis. Indeed, medieval manuscript tradition of French romance novels shows unquestionable evidence of massive variation when it comes to the breakdown of episodes, narrative sequences and smaller units as paragraph markers. Accomplishing the process of editing a novel, the very same novel, if “same” is the right word, different editors provide different breakdowns of the the story, the very same story, if, still, “same” is the right word. Basically, no middle-age manuscript tradition of any given early romance novel shows a recurrent breakdown pattern of the narrative parts. Any given version of the “same” romance novel actually provides his own breakdown of paragraphs, sections, chapter borders.
Moving deep forward the literary history of the novel to the Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit one could easily account narrative sections, chapters, episodes, paragraphs, as meaningful defined and fixed units. Indeed, printing made it possible to reproduce the standard breakdown of the novel into potentially infinite copies. Of course, different editions eventually revise the original partitioning of the novel, sometimes the author himself changes his mind, sometimes an editor takes part into a revision. Still, as soon as the matrix is established, copies reflects the very same standardized breakdown of the story in chapters, episodes, paragraphs, any kind of sections or parts.
Classical works by Watt e Goody (1968 ), Goody (1977: ix and passim, 1987) e Ong (1982: 78 ) identified textual consistency as a peculiar feature of literacy. R. H. Finnegan (1988: 17 e 82 in part.) suggested a different approach, observing that «even in litterate cultures there are many differences of degree in the respect accorded to a fixed text». Indeed, «it is possible indeed that we should regard printing rather than writing in itself as the most important factor here». If a threshold factor may be identified, distinguishing textual consistency of a story as a pure aim or an actual feature «it is between societies with and without printing, rather than with or without writing».
Accordingly, printing subverts the ecology of the novel making it possible to reproduce a standard format basically packing into the very same unit the story, the text and the novel. In ‘natural conditions’, that is before printing, the processing of the novel is dynamic and stochastic. The purpose of reproducing on an “high fidelity” standard, possibly “maximum, absolute fidelity”, should be considered as very exceptional, that is as the degré zero of manuscript textual reproduction. Hence, technologies underlaying reproduction have to be credited for the fixed textual encoding of the novel.

Still , textual processing of stories, both while listening to spoken aloud narratives, and very likely even while reading a written text, relies on plastic decoding of the symbolic code leading to the embodiment of corresponding perceptual events, actions and emotional correlates via mirror matching. Hence, the Novel stops being a defined product, an artifact working as an instructional system any time a reader or a listener start decoding the text so to embody the encoded story. In that very moment the novel starts acting as a plastic organism, a system providing a set of perceptual events, actions and emotional correlates. When the very same ecological interaction involves an editor, it very likely mutates the novel into something new, since the recoding of decoded events entailing perception, action and emotion very likely depends on the selection of new options among the potentially available “fit enough” ones.

That’s why ruling variation out of the general plan, typical histories of the literature basically rely on premises that are the very literary equivalent of the assumption that god created all the living species on earth. Indeed, novels as modern criticism is used to conceive them, basically as single objects identified by the boundaries of given texts, embodied into books and secured by the borders of their covers, are just the result of cultural or social selection operated by authors, editors, scribes, printers. Paradoxically, in ‘natural conditions’ the modern definition of “novel” applies both to the individual versions and/or to the family they belong to, that is it may be regarded at the same time as an item and/or as a category including that very same item.
Since the relationship between stories and texts is nonhierarchical, the novel basically results in an emerging feature arising from an asymmetric process of critical encoding.
That’s why, semiotic theories of reference, as the ones based on intertextuality (Kristeva 1966), should be finally discarded once and forever in favor of a new ecological approach to intersubjectivity, entailing embodiment of narrative references as a crucial feature. Indeed, texts can no be just addressed as mosaics of quotations, that is as parts of a larger mosaic of texts, given that textual features counts as meaningful units just in terms they can be plastically embodied into corresponding perceptual schemes, activity patterns and related interoceptive ramifications, as emotions and feelings.
Moreover, an evolutionary approach to the novel should necessarily investigate ‘textual fossils’, so to figure out the way cultural and social selection shaped the World Literature the way it looks like. Indeed, a philological approach make it possible to avoid literary determinism, the full equivalent of creationism in natural sciences.
Finnegan, R. H.
Literacy and orality: studies in the technology of communication, Oxford-New York, Blackwell, 1988.

Fuksas, A. P.
Selezionismo e conjointure, in Dal Romanzo alle reti. Atti del Convegno «Soggetti e territori del romanzo» Università di Roma «La Sapienza». Facoltà di Scienze della Comunicazione, 23-24 maggio 2002, a c. di A. Abruzzese e I. Pezzini, Torino, Testo & Immagine, 2004, pp. 152-184.

Goody, J.
The domestication of the savage mind, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Goody, J.
The logic of writing and the organization of society, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Goody, J. – Watt, I.
The consequences of litteracy, in Litteracy in Traditional Societies, a c. di. J. Goody, London, Cambridge University Press.

Iser, W. 1976
Der Akt des Lesens. Theorie asthetischer Wirkung, Munchen, W. Fink (then Id., The Act of Reading. A Theory of Aesthetic Response, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1978 ).

Kristeva, J. 1969
Séméiôtiké: recherches pour une sémanalyse, Paris: Edition du Seuil.

Ong, W. J.
Orality and Litteracy: the Technologizing of the World, London – New York, Methuen.

Searle, J.R.
Minds, brains and programs, in « Behavioral and Brain Sciences» 3 (3), pp. 417-457.

Searle, J.R.
Is the brain a digital computer?, in «Proceedings of the American Philosophical Association» 64 (3), pp. 21-38.