Wednesday 12 September 2018

Nabokov's Favourite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt

What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Which bestselling writer uses the most clichés? How can we judge a book by its cover?

Ben Blatt is a statistician and journalist. It's an unusual combination. But he likes the same things as me - numbers (especially statistics) and words.

Now that I've finished the book, I'm going to mess up the stats. Something like 85% of all that has ever been written is now available electronically, for algorithms to trawl through, counting words, word combinations and interesting things about the data. This compares to something like 20% a short while ago.

It's not just books - websites, articles, blogs, journals, it's all available for us to interrogate. I love this stuff - for instance, this meme that shows the most common verb usage after "he" and "she" in 100 000 plot descriptions. It isn't from the book, and if you click the graph, you'll see the article by David Robinson, another data scientist.

The trick is to ask the right questions, and Blatt does this - starting with all the sexism evident in writing - but are male authors bigger culprits than females? Well yes, they are. He then goes to the great advice that is given in writing courses - don't use "-ly" words, show don't tell, don't use clichès, and so on. It's really fun to see whether Hemingway follows his own advice, and Stephen King too.

He confines his database to the classics in some studies, and also does some interesting comparisons between fanfiction and their original inspirations. Covers, opening sentences, reading levels are all investigated, with fascinating results.

It's a light, fun read, if you're interested in this kind of thing, but I admit with no small degree of reluctance, it's not for everyone. 

4 stars

ISBN: 9781471152825

You may also enjoy Big Data by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier or Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.

More books.

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