We are a nation governed by distraction; If You Give a Mouse a Cookie could be our memoir–at least, our most benign one. Everyone I know complains of spending too much time online. They regret the minutes and hours lost, but admit to getting sucked down rabbit holes. We bemoan our lost book-reading time, but can’t resist the eddies of interest and tentacles of curiosity that Googling and link-hopping can provide. Fortunately, there’s a new book out that satisfies all of these tendencies—it can be dipped into like a squirrel’s nut hoard, enjoyed a quick nibble at a time, or dived into headfirst, one fascinating tidbit leading to the next to the next to the next—yet still qualifies as literary.
This new book I’m currently addicted to is called Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal about the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing by Ben Blatt (Simon & Schuster). It’s an entertaining, list- and graph-filled, statistical look at what the words in classic and contemporary literature reveal about writers, our attitudes toward writing, and the ways those are changing over time.
If you want evidence to back up your literary disdain of adverbs, you might find it here. It you want to know how to predict whether an anonymous writer is male or female, and how historically gender-related language plays out in classic and popular literature by the numbers, look no further. If you’re interested in how often certain saucy words crop up in British vs. U.S. fanfiction or erotica, amusing examples lie within.
But the book isn’t simply a gathering of lists. There are conclusions to be drawn about our culture from our literary past and present. The author looks at New York Times bestselling titles across history, noting changes in patterns; it is telling, for instance, that the percentage of #1 NYT bestsellers with a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level greater than 8 has dropped from 47% in the 1960s to 3% in the 2010s. There are so many fascinating graphs like this throughout the book.
Beyond looking at our cultural tendencies, Blatt is interested in what word choices reveal about their writers. Our words are as telling as our fingerprints. The mystery of who wrote The Federalist Papers was solved not by literary or historical deduction, but by data: analyzing word usage that pointed a finger directly at the writer. Ben Blatt explores the use and relative value in literature of adverbs, exclamation points, thought verbs, qualifiers, similes, etc.. He explores “quiet” words and “loud” words, and compares British vs. American usage of these. He provides analysis sure to make some of his exemplar authors squirm, noting their writerly tics—favorite repetitive words, phrases, and more—and their habits. Why is Salman Rushdie so fond of the words “flapping,” “eagles,” and “whores,” or Ray Bradbury so tethered to “spearmint?” And why does Michael Connelly have to watch out for “nodding” as he writes?
This is really the most delicious kind of rabbit hole. Blatt even analyzes the relative sizes of authors’ names on book jackets.
It’s hard to include the many different kinds of data and literary explorations are included in Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve. If you’re a writer, you won’t be able to resist it. If you know a writer, give this as a gift and find yourself adored. I imagine it on Chelsea loft coffee tables and nightstands, ringed with coffee stains, and atop writerly stacks, the first book of choice for procrastination. This isn’t a book you read cover to cover; you devour it in tantalizing snippets.
By now, you’ll have noticed that this isn’t a post about children’s books or children’s bookselling. That should indicate how far down this 288-page rabbit hole I’ve gone. I’ll see you next week when I re-emerge.