Happy 350th birthday, Jonathan Swift!

Brian Lavoie

swift_banner

Writing about the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, George Orwell observes:

“In a political and moral sense I am against him, so far as I understand him. Yet curiously enough he is one of the writers I admire with least reserve, and Gulliver’s Travels, in particular, is a book which it seems impossible for me to grow tired of… If I had to make a list of six books which were to be preserved when all others were destroyed, I would certainly put Gulliver’s Travels among them.” 1

On this, the occasion of Jonathan Swift’s 350th birthday, we share Orwell’s enthusiasm for Swift and his work by adding our own library-style tribute: Swift is the most popular Irish-born author, and Gulliver’s Travels the most popular work by an Irish author, in library collections today.

Studying the “Irish presence” worldwide

Over the summer we published several short pieces describing findings from a study of the Irish presence in the published record—the collection of materials by Irish people, about Ireland, or published in Ireland. A study of this kind is made possible by the massive aggregation of bibliographic and holdings data in OCLC’s WorldCat, a database of library catalogs. We had the opportunity to report some of our findings in the Irish Times, where Lorcan Dempsey noted that exploration of the Irish presence “is a form of ‘reading at scale,’ identifying patterns in how countries project their cultural, intellectual, literary, and musical traditions through the published record.”

Using a measure of popularity based on the number of appearances by an author or work in library collections worldwide, we determined that Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels top the lists of most popular Irish authors and most popular works by an Irish author, respectively. Following Swift in the ranking are Oscar Wilde, Eve Bunting, George Bernard Shaw, and Oliver Goldsmith, while Dracula, The Vicar of Wakefield, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Artemis Fowl round out the top five most popular works by an Irish author.

Cooperative library data: a unique, powerful way to explore world literature

Library collections are where the world’s literature is gathered and stewarded. Library data—the information libraries have recorded about their collections—is a unique and powerful resource for exploring the contours of world literature.

In addition to the Irish study (full report forthcoming), OCLC Research has produced similar surveys of the Scottish and New Zealand national presences in the published record. Taken together, this work helps demonstrate the value of library data—and more specifically, WorldCat as an aggregator and repository of that data—as a source of information about the world’s literature.

So we add our accolades to the many honoring Jonathan Swift today, and close with this typically satirical passage from the man himself:

I write for the noblest end, to inform and instruct mankind, over whom I may, without breach of modesty, pretend to some superiority, from the advantages I received by conversing so long among the accomplished Houyhnhnms. I write without any view towards profit or praise. I never suffer a word to pass that may look like reflection, or possibly give the least offense even to those who are most ready to take it. So that I hope I may with justice pronounce myself an author perfectly blameless, against whom the tribes of answerers, considerers, observers, reflecters, detecters, remarkers, will never be able to find matter for exercising their talents. (Gulliver’s Travels, 1726)

Without irony, satire, caustic humor, or any other literary device, we wish Jonathan Swift a happy birthday!

Happy birthday, Jonathan Swift!

 


1. Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell. Vol. 4, In Front of Your Nose: 1946-1950. Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. Boston, MA: Nonpareil Books, 2000, p. 220.