After finishing my book on the history of pop music, Pop 365, which tells the story of how music evolved from the 1940s to the present day via 365 landmark albums, I’ve been racking my brains since the start of 2016 trying to choose which project to embark on next. Though writing fiction and non-fiction appeals to me, I still feel like there are more pressing gaps in my education that need to be filled, and that blogging about them is the best way to go. I also feel tied to the 365 concept, and though I know that trying to chart the history of literature via 365 works or authors is far more ambitious than 365 albums, I’m also a fan of tilting at windmills.
So I’ve set up this site, Babel Maps, to chart my journey through the history of literature, starting with the classics like Homer and Herodotus, and ending up with authors still alive today like Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell. Given I’m not the first to attempt something like this (e.g. John Sutherland’s A Little History of Literature), I’m taking a slightly more original angle by looking for ways that these great works of literature can be understood better thanks to graphics and data visualisations; and where existing examples of infographics don’t exist, my aim is to create them.
Although my focus will inevitably fall on the Western Canon, made famous by Harold Bloom, I’ll also try to consider literary heritages from all around the world, and try and understand the myth and folklore that has emerged from these major literary cultures.
An example of how visual aids can give us a window onto other cultures and their myths are these infographics created by Veritable Hokum. I can’t embed them here, but you can view the infographics (and buy the posters) by clicking on these links:
N.B. I recommend reading the text below the infographics too for commentary on how the infographics were assembled and a round-up of all the characters.
Another inspiration for starting this Babel Maps project is a collection of essays I read over the Christmas period called “Why Read The Classics?“, by Italo Calvino. The essay that gives the book its title is just a short one (and worth your time), giving 14 reasons why we should still find time for the classics in an age when most people are overloaded by information from various sources, be it TV, internet or social media.
I’m also inspired by this video lecture from one of my favourite contemporary writers, Kurt Vonnegut, who visualises many of the common stories in the history of literature. A graphic designer, Maya Eilam, produced a wonderful infographic in 2012 that maps many of Vonnegut’s story shapes in more detail. Here’s the man himself:
Two of the first writers up on the blog will be Homer and Herodotus, both of which I’ve somehow largely avoided (for my shame) despite there being echoes of their work in many of the books I studied in English literature classes at school and for French & Italian literature modules at university. As I write this in early 2016, Im currently reading Herodotus’ Histories with an online Goodreads group; it all feels a bit like a midlife crisis as I reach the “mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (midway point in our lives), as Dante said, but I’m determined to see where this journey takes me.
Finally, I’ve started my research on which 365 authors to choose, and their major work to study, based on culling info from many “best” books lists and aggregating the results to find some consensus on the great authors, but if anyone reading this has suggestions for overlooked classics, please comment below. I don’t think I’ll approach the subject chronologically, like I did with my Pop 365 blog, though I will be starting with the classics; and I also won’t be trying to write 365 blogs in a year! When it comes to reading at least 365 books, who knows when this project will finish, if ever…