This essay identifies a problem within the sociology of literature: the wide adoption of quantitative/probabilistic contingency as the only kind of contingency there is. It relates this phenomenon to three factors: 1) the oddness of the book as an empirical object of study, 2) modernity's management of complexity through theories of reading, and 3) a long-standing, subtle form of cultural essentialism, expressed not through representational choices but through naive expectations about the complexity and scale of other people's reading worlds. Together, they create a complicated romance in which a few books, or even one book, explain and determine the lives of cultural others and do so primarily by offering permutational possibilities. The essay proceeds by looking very closely at Borges's "The Garden of the Forking Paths" and the history of the kneejerk (and erroneous) reading of the story as a hypertext. Looking then to Borges's writings on Chinese readers and book collectors, I go over the logics of this methodologically compensatory move in the sociology of literature. Finally, I discuss the challenges of representing developmental ongoingness and open-ended mediation—a contingency in which books may lead to others or act on lives in ways that render their influences empirically unverifiable.


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pp. 475-500
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