Literary Constellations: Astronomy-Inspired Visualizations of the Opening Sentences of Beloved Books
By Maria Popova
“If one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader,” David Foster Wallace offered in his advice on how to write a great opener. There is, of course, no formula for the writing of a great opening sentence, just like there isn’t one for writing a great book — or rather, as John Steinbeck put it, “the formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.” In a powerful and memorable opening sentence, that “aching urge” constellates into the particular cosmogony which the writer conveys to the reader.
That’s what data artist Nick Rougeux celebrates with his Literary Constellations project — a series of astronomy-inspired diagrams of the opening sentences of beloved books and short stories in the public domain, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Time Machine, reminiscent of and perhaps influenced by Stefanie Posavec’s now-iconic 2008 project Writing Without Words.
Constellations were created from words of first sentences of each chapter in classic short stories to draw a paths based on word length and part of speech. The directions of lines were based on part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) and length is based on the length of the word. Star sizes are also based on word length. Constellations were hand-arranged in a loose clockwise pattern starting at the top with a faint highlight connecting each in the order chapters appeared in the story representing the cloud of the galaxy usually shown in vintage star charts.
Like the best of ideas, the concept is both wholly original and perfectly organic: With its compact elegance, data art embodies Nabokov’s criterion for great storytelling — “a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science” — and is therefore a winsome canvas onto which to celebrate literary classics.
Rougeux details his process here.
For another delightful masterwork of data art, see Stefanie Posavec and Giorgia Lupi’s Dear Data project; for a very different visual celebration of literary classics, see Dinah Fried’s magnificent Fictitious Dishes — meals from beloved books, cooked and photographed in real life.
Published January 30, 2017