Sunday, April 30, 2017

Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt

    • Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt
    • Published March 14, 2017
    • One other book by author: I Don't Care If We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever

    • The author introduces us to an example from the early 1960s when two statisticians used data to determine which Founding Father wrote which essays in The Federalist Papers. 
      • The essays were originally published under the same pen name. 
        • Before the famous duel with Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton made a list taking credit for those he wrote. 
        • Years later James Madison made a list of the ones he wrote.
          • The lists differed. Years of scholarly debate ensued.
      • In 1963 Frederick Mosteller and David Wallace, statisticians but not historians, used word frequency as a way to solve the puzzle. 
        • In those pre-digital days they had to cut out the words and count them manually.
        • Using known works by the purported authors they could compare statistically the words used --- or not used --- and make a strongly creditable decision on the actual authors of each essay.
        • As a single example of the evidence: Madison used the word whilst but never used while; Hamilton used while but never used whilst.
    • Today all it takes is a digital copy of a given work to quantify word usage in mere seconds.
    • Some of the questions tackled in the book:
      • Do better writers use -ly adverbs less frequently than lesser writers?
      • Do female and male writers use words differently?
      • Do writers have a similar style in word choices if they write in different genres?
        • Example: J.K. Rowling and her pseudonym Robert Galbriath
      • Can you tell which co-author wrote what in a given book?
        • Examples include Tom Clancy and his various co-authors and James Patterson and his.
      • Which group of writers uses more exclamation points: NY Times bestsellers, literary fiction or fan fiction?
      • Using the Fleisch-Kinkaid Grade Level test, are books getting dumber over time?
        • Spoiler: Duh.
      • Can you tell whether the writer is American or British?
      • Which writers use the most cliches?
      • What does the size of the author's name on a book cover tell us?

    • A book which combines literature with math? Filled with graphs and charts?
      • I loved this book! It was so much fun to read and I thoroughly enjoyed all the visual aids.
      • This book combined the two things I loved best about school: math classes and English classes.
        • I was occasionally made to feel like a weirdo sometimes (not by my parents though) because I was good at math and sciences AND English and history. Apparently I was supposed to be good at one category or the other, not both. 
        • I literally remember one woman telling me I wasn't supposed to be "good at both" during high school. Like I should --- or could ---  turn that part of my brain off?
          • In college I started out majoring in writing and then ultimately switched to accounting, via mathematics and economics. I was never a big fan of statistic class but I definitely understand the subject.
    • The author explained why he picked the books he does, using various "best of" lists in classic literature and modern literary fiction along with fan fiction for various topics.
      • I had read a bunch of the examples so it made reading that much more interesting to me.
    • Recommended for readers who enjoy a trove of fun facts about writers and their writing styles. It's a quick read too.
    • ★ ★ ★ ★

1 comment:

  1. "I was occasionally made to feel like a weirdo sometimes" Apparently, you were frequently made to feel like a weirdo all the time. What are the Federalist Papers and why do we care who wrote them? "Using the Fleisch-Kinkaid Grade Level test, are books getting dumber over time?" Is it books or readers? You have asked many unanswered questions. I look forward to the answers as I cannot be bothered with actual readin' and learnin' and stuff and things.