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Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing

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What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Which bestselling writer uses the most clichés? How can we judge a book by its cover? Data meet literature in this playful and informative look at our favorite authors and their masterpieces. There’s a famous piece of writing advice—offered by Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and myriad writers in between—not to use -ly adverbs What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Which bestselling writer uses the most clichés? How can we judge a book by its cover? Data meet literature in this playful and informative look at our favorite authors and their masterpieces. There’s a famous piece of writing advice—offered by Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and myriad writers in between—not to use -ly adverbs like “quickly” or “fitfully.” It sounds like solid advice, but can we actually test it? If we were to count all the -ly adverbs these authors used in their careers, do they follow their own advice compared to other celebrated authors? What’s more, do great books in general—the classics and the bestsellers—share this trait? In Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, statistician and journalist Ben Blatt brings big data to the literary canon, exploring the wealth of fun findings that remain hidden in the works of the world’s greatest writers. He assembles a database of thousands of books and hundreds of millions of words, and starts asking the questions that have intrigued curious word nerds and book lovers for generations: What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Do men and women write differently? Are bestsellers getting dumber over time? Which bestselling writer uses the most clichés? What makes a great opening sentence? How can we judge a book by its cover? And which writerly advice is worth following or ignoring?


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What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Which bestselling writer uses the most clichés? How can we judge a book by its cover? Data meet literature in this playful and informative look at our favorite authors and their masterpieces. There’s a famous piece of writing advice—offered by Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and myriad writers in between—not to use -ly adverbs What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Which bestselling writer uses the most clichés? How can we judge a book by its cover? Data meet literature in this playful and informative look at our favorite authors and their masterpieces. There’s a famous piece of writing advice—offered by Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and myriad writers in between—not to use -ly adverbs like “quickly” or “fitfully.” It sounds like solid advice, but can we actually test it? If we were to count all the -ly adverbs these authors used in their careers, do they follow their own advice compared to other celebrated authors? What’s more, do great books in general—the classics and the bestsellers—share this trait? In Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, statistician and journalist Ben Blatt brings big data to the literary canon, exploring the wealth of fun findings that remain hidden in the works of the world’s greatest writers. He assembles a database of thousands of books and hundreds of millions of words, and starts asking the questions that have intrigued curious word nerds and book lovers for generations: What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Do men and women write differently? Are bestsellers getting dumber over time? Which bestselling writer uses the most clichés? What makes a great opening sentence? How can we judge a book by its cover? And which writerly advice is worth following or ignoring?

30 review for Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing

  1. 4 out of 5

    Brina

    Two months ago my seventh grade son chose to write his independent book report on I Don't Care if We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever because it details how two friends used a computer algorithm to attend games at thirty different major league baseball stadiums in thirty days. In essence, the book's primary author is a grown version of my math and baseball loving son. So moved was my son by the book that he conducted a question and answer session over Two months ago my seventh grade son chose to write his independent book report on I Don't Care if We Never Get Back: 30 Games in 30 Days on the Best Worst Baseball Road Trip Ever because it details how two friends used a computer algorithm to attend games at thirty different major league baseball stadiums in thirty days. In essence, the book's primary author is a grown version of my math and baseball loving son. So moved was my son by the book that he conducted a question and answer session over email with the author, this while he had just published a second book. This correspondence became my family's reading story of the year. I was touched by Ben Blatt's willingness to answer questions for a seventh grader's English assignment, so I decided to read this aforementioned second book for myself. Scientists maintain that the majority of people are either left or right brained dominate, with one's ability to solve mathematical equations and write quality stories being on opposite sides of the brain. Ben Blatt decides to use mathematical algorithms to delve into the writing processes of various authors from Charles Dickens to Stephen King and a myriad of genre authors in between. In his introduction he uses the example of who wrote the Declaration of Independence: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay, or anonymous authors. By plugging the usages of the words whilst and while into a computer program, Blatt found that the evidence supports Madison as the lead writer. Fifty years ago, mathematicians attempted to answer the same question but they did not have the luxury of a computer and had to solve the same algorithm by hand. Their evidence matches Blatt's, revealing that math does play a significant role in written language. Each chapter in this book details a different variable as a determinant for authorship. Blatt uses his favorite authors as examples but collects a large enough sample size to create accurate data. Some of the more intriguing chapters pinpointed various word usage in male and female authors and how language usage has changed or remained the same over the past two hundred years. He placed classic, New York Times best sellers, and modern literary fiction authors into different categories, explaining how their word usage is both the same and different. In this demonstration of compare and contrast, he notes the use of action words or verbs, adjectives, and adverbs across the spectrum of writers, tabulating the data in charts that he includes in the final book. Stephen King, for example, urges promising writers to avoid the adverb. I have attempted to cut down on -ly words for the purpose of this review, and Blatt cuts down on his preference toward adverbs during the chapter where he discusses this caveat of language. He also plugs King's adverb usage into his algorithm to reveal whether or not he uses the part of speech more or less than other writers. In the final chapters, Blatt notes of two trends in the publishing industry today. The first is how authors of both popular series and stand alone books tend to write longer books over time. The first Harry Potter book was only 306 pages long because J.K. Rowling did not know if her book was going to be famous or not. Each successive book became longer in length, both because of Rowling's success and because fans demanded longer stories. Blatt reveals that this trend is similar in current best selling series as Divergent and Twilight while the trend holds for popular literary fiction writer Amy Tan. Another point he presents is how as best selling authors get more famous, their name takes up a larger percentage of space on the book's cover. Stephen King's name only took up seven percent of the cover with his first book when he was an unknown author, and his percentage has plateaued at forty six percent. In essence, popularity sells, revealing how current best selling authors market themselves as much as the content of their books, leading to multiple publications per author per year, increasing the likelihood that these authors enjoy extended stays at the top of the New York Times best selling list. Blatt points out that as the trend toward churning out formulaic books increases, that perhaps as a society we have dumbed down in terms of what we read. He has taken questions about the quality of literature that I often ask myself and plugged them into algorithms in order to come up with concreate data about the word choices that make up both best selling books, literary fiction, and classics. I found each of the chapters engaging and enjoyed the graphs and charts that backed up the data. Blatt's use of mathematical equations to pinpoint language usage has been a full brain exercise that I found fascinating. As I often point out that one book leads to another, I am happy to note that my son's positive experience with Blatt's first book lead me to his intriguing second effort. 4 stars

  2. 4 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    3.5 What a fascinating book. Using math computations to find out who wrote something, who uses the least adverbs, thought verbs and other markers that makes ones writing their own. Different authors, different word choices, even punctuation all make a difference. Found it interesting that even authors who write a different genre under a different name such as Rowling can be identified. That though the name changes the writing does not. Words women authors use more often than men and visa versa. 3.5 What a fascinating book. Using math computations to find out who wrote something, who uses the least adverbs, thought verbs and other markers that makes ones writing their own. Different authors, different word choices, even punctuation all make a difference. Found it interesting that even authors who write a different genre under a different name such as Rowling can be identified. That though the name changes the writing does not. Words women authors use more often than men and visa versa. Changes between classic novels and modern fiction word usage. Male authors use the word cheap more than females authors. Other words too, though this word stuck in my mind because just before I read that part my hubby and I had been talking about a male friend our ours who was excessively frugal. Cheap! Another thought that stuck is that the State the Union address has apparently sunk to a new intellectual low. Wonder why? Many, many graphs, comparisons, but such a different book. It has made me very aware of my writing, need to watch the overuse of adverbs and qualifiers. Though I see I have once again over used qualifiers. Well, as they say Rome wasn't built in a day.

  3. 5 out of 5

    ☘Misericordia☘ ~ The Serendipity Aegis ~ ⚡ϟ⚡ϟ⚡⛈ ✺❂❤❣

    Yes! Mouthwatering DS for readers. The ultimate pleasure for people enamored with: - data science, - stats, - history, - reading, - books, - writing... Numbers and words can work together, if you take it all in in a particular way! So, Neil Gaiman works with doors and coats, Palahniuk orgasms throughout his books, Gillian Flynn is all about pissed girls with runner hair (kidding... not!), James Patterson's work's always about murders by killers & kidnappings, Janet Evanovich is maybe too much into doug Yes! Mouthwatering DS for readers. The ultimate pleasure for people enamored with: - data science, - stats, - history, - reading, - books, - writing... Numbers and words can work together, if you take it all in in a particular way! So, Neil Gaiman works with doors and coats, Palahniuk orgasms throughout his books, Gillian Flynn is all about pissed girls with runner hair (kidding... not!), James Patterson's work's always about murders by killers & kidnappings, Janet Evanovich is maybe too much into doughnuts on car backseats, John Grisham's heroes ntural habitat includes courtrooms, offices & they seem to often need money plus jurors, Jean Auel gives us steppe wolves and totam clan caves, Douglas Adams lets us get just a peek into the prefect galactic spaceship, Ayn Rand can't do without her transcontinental proletarian comrades (ouch - was that just her or those notorious amphetamines writing?), Steinbeck is into rabbits, RL Stine can't do without creepies (in all the innumerable Goosebumps books) and backpacks and sneakers that cried (kidding! almost...), Rick Riordan is always on about monsters and titans and camps, CS Lewis goes on and on about that lion and kings and dwarfs & witches of his, George RR Martin gives us all the dragons, unsullied, cloaks and ladies that we could've ever wanted... Seems about right! And we all love to read easy stuff. Or easy stuff gets read more these days. Or... whatever... And yep. One totally can judge a book by its cover! Q: If you follow U.S. politics you might see the Flesch-Kincaid formula pop up once a year when it’s time for the State of the Union. It has become a popular pastime to evaluate the complexity of these speeches, for doing so reveals an undeniable trend. When comparing all of the State of the Union addresses from America’s founding to the present, the Flesch-Kincaid test shows a steady decline in the sophistication of our political speech. If you’re being optimistic, politics is reaching a wider audience. If you’re being cynical, politics is getting stupider by the decade. In an article in the Guardian, titled perfectly “The state of our union is . . . dumber,” the authors used Flesch-Kincaid to determine that the annual presidential State of the Union Address has gone from an eighteenth-grade level pre-1900, to a twelfth grade level in the 1900s, and it’s now sunk below a tenth-grade level in the 2000s. The role of the State of the Union has changed over the years. After all, when Washington was addressing Congress in 1790 it was meant as an actual addressII to Congress. The event has transformed into a national radio and television spectacle, making it important to reach every corner of America, regardless of age and education. (c) Q: There aren’t just more guilty pleasures representing popular books. The pleasures have gotten guiltier. (c) Q: The New York Times bestseller list holds a rarefied place in the book world. To have written a New York Times bestseller is to have made it. And for the general public, the list often serves as the public face of fiction, a guide to what’s worth reading. Yet in the last fifty years, there is no way around it: The books that we’re reading have become simpler and simpler. There are two reasons this could be happening. The first would be that all popular books today are filled with simpler sentences and more monosyllabic words. The alternative is that the New York Times bestseller list is getting “dumber”—as the Guardian would put it—because more books of a “dumb” genre are reaching the top. I’ll call this the “guilty pleasure” theory. If quick reads like thrillers and romance novels now make the list more often than they did thirty years ago, the median reading level would move down even if each genre’s grade level stayed the same. I’ve checked both theories, and the answer, it turns out, is: both. (c) Q: The growing presence of guilty pleasures is not the sole reason for the decline in bestseller reading levels, however. If we break down bestsellers by genre, we find that there has been a long-term shift within those guilty pleasures. Thrillers have become “dumber.” Romance has become “dumber.” There has been an across-the-board “dumbification” of popular fiction. (c) Q: Or consider sobbed. It may not be the most common verb in the sample of 300 books, but it is revealing. Women use it to describe men and women, but men do not use it to describe themselves. If “real men” don’t cry, fictional men don’t sob. ... Male authors describe their female characters as kissing at a higher rate than their male characters. Female authors do the opposite, describing their male characters kissing more often. (c) Q: There aren’t just more guilty pleasures representing popular books. The pleasures have gotten guiltier. (c) Q: Though it is the most prevalent, the Flesch-Kincaid test is just one of many tests of reading level. Most use sentence length as a large component. Today’s bestsellers have much shorter sentences than the bestsellers of the past, a drop of 17 words per sentence in the 1960s to 12 in the 2000s. This means any of these similar tests will show similar declines. One interesting alternative is the Dale-Chall readability formula. While it too uses sentence length, it has a separate component that factors in the number of “complex” words that appear in a text. In 1948 Edgar Dale and Jeanne Chall compiled a list of 763 words they did not consider complex. From this list it’s possible to count the number of “complex” and the number of “not complex” words in a text.VI The thought is that it’s not just sentence length that can make a book hard to follow for young readers, but the number of words that are unfamiliar. (c) Q: If you are familiar with the Rowling novels, you might start to hypothesize about what contributes to their “quietness.” Does the fact that much of the action in the series revolves around sneaking about Hogwarts have anything to do with this? If so, does this make the novels appear more “quiet” than they are? Or is the “quiet” sneaking action a perfect example of the subdued action compared to an American series? (c) Q: So Pynchon’s variety is seen not just in his lack of anaphora, but in the variety of his sentences as well. In the sample of all fifty authors seen in the previous chapter, Pynchon ranks near the bottom when we look at the percent of sentences that use his top ten openers. (c) Q: Bradbury was deciding upon which word was his “favorite” when he chose ramshackle and cinnamon. And if we look at the numbers, he does indeed use these words more often than other writers. Of the fifty authors I’ve used throughout this book as examples, ranging from J. K. Rowling to Vladimir Nabokov and Agatha Christie to Jane Austen, none used ramshackle as frequently as Bradbury. And just one of the fifty, Toni Morrison, used cinnamon more often. In his ode to cinnamon, Bradbury mentions that it reminds him of reading the labels on spice boxes in his grandma’s pantry. Without reading Bradbury’s explanation, would it have been possible, with a bit of statistical sleuthing, to detect this memory? (c) Q: On the other hand, there can be tic words that writers end up leaning on a lot, to the point where they appear hundreds of times in a book and can even disrupt the reading experience. For instance, in the same collection of favorite words, Michael Connelly contributed his favorite as nodded. Connelly has written seven number one bestsellers and seen two of his movies be adapted into major films (Blood Work, starring Clint Eastwood, and The Lincoln Lawyer, starring Matthew McConaughey). He said this of his favorite word and his main character Harry Bosch: He’s a man of few words. He reacts by nodding, so “nodding” ends up in all my books. I had an editor who pointed out that Harry nods too much. In fact in one book he nodded 243 times. (c) Q: And it makes perfect sense that a color, such as mauve, would be one of Nabokov’s “cinnamon words.” He was known to have synesthesia. ... Given the unique way Nabokov described his thoughts, it seems as if the “cinnamon word” method was able to succeed in landing upon a word that was unique to him. His love of mauve is extraordinary, but he uses all colors more than other writers as well. If you use the 64 standard Crayola Crayon names as a definitive list of colors, Vladimir Nabokov uses around 460 color words per 100,000, which is remarkably high. The same colors appear just 115 times per 100,000 in the Corpus of Historical American English. (c) Q: Not everyone’s “cinnamon words” may be as telling as Nabokov’s, and the method isn’t perfect. For a number of authors, the words reflect the unique tone of a book or subject matter. Jane Austen’s top three are civility, fancying, and imprudence, while Agatha Christie’s are inquest, alibi, and frightful. For authors like J. K. Rowling, where I chose to include just the one series for which she is best known, the words are representative of that universe itself rather than any words representing a likely favorite. The top three “cinnamon words” for the Potter series are wand, wizard, and potion. For Fifty Shades they’re murmurs, hmm, and subconscious. And for Patterson’s Alex Cross books we get killers, murders, and kidnapping—which could function well as a tagline. (c) Q: These words too are sometimes taken over by subject and setting (Suzanne Collins’s fallback words of the Hunger Games series include district and games), and they tend to be drier, blander words. But they can also be revealing of the inner mechanics of certain authors’ writing—the devices and tics they tend to fall back on to keep the plot moving or to get from one scene to the next. Gaiman fills the gaps with walking; Cheever’s reality is shifting, focusing on how things seem; Stine’s Goosebumps books are filled with staring and crying; some authors focus on feel, others on want. (c)

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer

    I am obsessed. I was browsing the literary criticism/essays shelves at Barnes & Noble, as one does, when I happened upon this treasure. It was one of those soul-meets-book moments. Like, I had no idea I wanted this book to exist, but once I saw it I knew I had actually been waiting for it my whole life. This is Google Ngram meets human researcher, and the result is delightful. Blatt examines writing style via statistics, focusing on specific questions to get an idea of existing patterns. Some of I am obsessed. I was browsing the literary criticism/essays shelves at Barnes & Noble, as one does, when I happened upon this treasure. It was one of those soul-meets-book moments. Like, I had no idea I wanted this book to exist, but once I saw it I knew I had actually been waiting for it my whole life. This is Google Ngram meets human researcher, and the result is delightful. Blatt examines writing style via statistics, focusing on specific questions to get an idea of existing patterns. Some of his questions I had asked (with no ready answer) long before picking up this book (like the jumping-off point for the first chapter: Did Hemingway avoid adverbs?), while other questions Blatt addressed had never occurred to me. His survey of written works spanned classics to fan fiction to erotica, and he detailed the process of gathering relevant samples from each category. Tables and graphs, all shaded mauve, accompanied the written summaries of his research. His explanations of the data and parameters were clear and straightforward. It has been a while since I've studied statistics, but I realize that not much math was included in this book. As I've said, the results were, although Blatt did not go into detail (e.g. we were not given p-values for any result that was claimed to be significant). If I were a statistician I might wish he had included more about the mathematical process, but I found Blatt achieved a balance by describing how he selected his samples and providing illustrations of his results. This book was readable and, while math can be interesting, I don't know that the book would have been as engaging if there had been more of a focus on the equations/programs used to arrive at the results. A few gems: The three words appearing together at the beginning of the most sentences in Fifty Shades of Grey are: "Christian Grey CEO" ("My inner goddess" is phrase number three); the most distinctive word in US erotica is "comforter," while in the UK it's "wanked"; and 42 of Danielle Steele's 92 opening sentences mention the weather. In case I've just made this book seem judgmental (I definitely have), it actually isn't. I am, but Blatt presented information alongside respectful commentary. This book is funny, but the humor is not mean-spirited. Despite the breadth and depth that Blatt covered, I want more. If he ever feels like following the trend of inflation in follow-up books, I'll be here to read the result.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Annie

    Simple and sweet. Conceptually uncomplicated (but a very complicated project for the author!) and a pleasant read. Reading this one gave me a similar feeling to taking fun, mindless Buzzfeed quizzes. There’s no real point, ultimately, but it was lovely to think about and muse over. I was always pleased to have time to come back to it, but nothing was heart-pounding or dramatic. The perfect book for a stressful time in your life where you need something to hold your attention without freaking you Simple and sweet. Conceptually uncomplicated (but a very complicated project for the author!) and a pleasant read. Reading this one gave me a similar feeling to taking fun, mindless Buzzfeed quizzes. There’s no real point, ultimately, but it was lovely to think about and muse over. I was always pleased to have time to come back to it, but nothing was heart-pounding or dramatic. The perfect book for a stressful time in your life where you need something to hold your attention without freaking you out. And guess who makes an appearance (on multiple occasions) but our own beloved Goodreads! Fun takeaways to follow. ------------NATIONALITY------------ Lists of the best books by Americans (e.g. New York Times, Time magazine, Amazon.com) tend to include four times as many American authors as British authors, whereas lists by Brits (e.g. Telegraph, Amazon.co.uk) tend to include about four times as many British authors as American. This surprised me! I feel like I read a huge number of British authors, and I imagine I’d include a greater percentage of Brits to Americans if you asked me to draw up a list of the greatest authors of all time. ------------INTELLIGENCE------------ Our books are getting dumber. The objectively scored reading grade level for the average bestsellers and the average literary books are going way down compared to where they used to be. ------------IDENTIFICATION------------ Writing styles are so distinct that this formula invented in the 1950s can identify whether the same writer wrote two pieces 99.4% percent of the time. Think about how staggering that percentage is. Just by looking at how many times you use the words when, sometimes, how, if, is, etc., they can be basically CERTAIN that I wrote something, not you. That’s like, fingerprint-level identification. We all use many of the same words, but we use them so distinctly that nobody can replicate us. No matter who we are. Isn’t that lovely? Our writing is completely and totally ours, whether it’s good or bad, it belongs to us in a unique and unreplicable way. ------------GENDER (AUTHOR)------------ A writer’s gender can be predicted 80% of the time by measuring the frequency of a few dozen words that you wouldn’t think gendered at all. Like actually, everything, their, above, something, the. But this isn’t perfect. Virginia Woolf, Ayn Rand, and Willa Cather all write very masculinely. Their books fall on the list of the ten “most masculine classic novels” the author calculates. And Anthony Burgess, JD Salinger, and DH Lawrence write very femininely, their books falling on the ten “most feminine classic novels” list. (When you start to think about it, those names- with the exception of Anthony Burgess- probably shouldn’t surprise you. I would have guessed Rand wrote masculinely and DH Lawrence would write femininely!) ----------GENDER (CHARACTERS)---------- When you go and calculate how many times “he” versus “she” is used in a novel (essentially, this lets you know how much the book is about men doing things versus women doing things) the results are STAGGERING. Women writers give a pretty decent split. About 50% he and 50% she. But men writers? On average they write “he” THREE TIMES AS MANY TIMES as they write she. Think about the implications of that. A 3:1 ratio when in reality, half of the people in the world are women. Think about the fact that women literally disappear from men’s consideration when they write, that their perspective narrows into tunnel vision like that. And it’s not just old books, either. Those numbers hold true for modern bestsellers. Men’s perspective is male-centric. Women are made irrelevant to the stories they choose to tell us. This infuriates me so much that I have committed to making this year the year of women authors. For every one book I read by a man, I’m reading two by women. I refuse to devote so much of my time to male authors if they can’t be bothered to devote book space to women. Also, there's a difference in how people write about male characters versus female characters. Both men & women authors write about women “screaming, shivering, weeping, murmuring, and marrying” far more than their men characters, while they write about men “muttering, grinning, shouting, chuckling, and killing” far more than the women characters. Men authors (but not women authors) write about women “interrupting” far more often than they do men. But interestingly, while men authors describe both men and women as having “fear,” women authors tend to not assign “fear” to their male characters. On the other hand, women authors describe both men and women as “sobbing” but men don’t use this word to describe men, only women. More interesting still: both genders use the following words to describe characters of the opposite gender more often than their own: kissed, exclaimed, answered, loved, and smiled. Wish fullfilment on both ends, perhaps? In contrast, both genders use the following words more often to describe characters of their own gender than the opposite: heard, wondered, lay, hated, ran. Typical every day action words that put the character at the center of the story. ------------FAVOURITE WORDS------------ Some favourite words of famous authors: Yes, indeed, Nabokov uses the word “mauve” many times over what other writers do. Ray Bradbury uses “ramshackle” and numerous spice words, such as “spearmint” and “cinnamon” far more often than nearly everyone. Michael Connolly= “nodded”; Jane Austen= “civility, fancying, imprudence”; Charlotte Bronte= “my, am, me”; William Faulkner= “hollering, realized, immobile”; F Scott Fitzgerald= “facetious, muddled, sanitarium”; Nathaniel Hawthorne= “subtile, betwixt, remoteness”; EL James= “murmur, hmm, subconscious”; DH Lawrence= “round, dark, sat”; Chuck Palahniuk= “says, inside, dead”; Nicholas Sparks= “final, wanted, real”; Alice Walker= “black, white, women”; Edith Wharton= “herself, seemed, her”; Virginia Woolf= “flushing, blotting, mantelpiece.” As the author sagely says, these “fallback” words can “be revealing of the inner mechanics of certain authors’ writing— the devices and tics they tend to fall back on to keep the plot moving or to get from one scene to the next. Gaiman fills the gaps with walking; Cheever’s reality is shifting, focusing on how things seem. These favourite words “go beyond rarity and become common for that author, almost as if they’re a part of the way that author thinks and operates.”

  6. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen Flynn

    This book, which uses data analysis to look at literature, is utterly fascinating and also very funny in places, like the chapter about cliches, which made me start laughing out loud in a crowded subway car. My only complaint is that it wasn't longer.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Briana

    In his author bio, Ben Blatt refers to himself as a "data journalist," but the type of work he does in Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve reminds me of some of the tasks that scholars and graduate students are working on in the digital humanities. The anecdote that Blatt opens with, explaining how two scholars used statistics to determine the authors of some of the essays in the Federalist Papers in 1963, is one good example. Digital tools can make answering some of our pressing questions about wr In his author bio, Ben Blatt refers to himself as a "data journalist," but the type of work he does in Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve reminds me of some of the tasks that scholars and graduate students are working on in the digital humanities. The anecdote that Blatt opens with, explaining how two scholars used statistics to determine the authors of some of the essays in the Federalist Papers in 1963, is one good example. Digital tools can make answering some of our pressing questions about writing, reading, and authorship so much faster, and Blatt demonstrates how. The book is divided into different topics, and I admit some are more interesting than others. I particularly enjoyed the first chapter, "Use Sparingly," where Blatt investigates whether the old writing advice "use -ly adverbs minimally" is "good" advice. (Of course that will always be somewhat subjective, but he takes a look at classic authors, generally deemed "good" authors, to see see if they tend to follow this rule. Frequently he analyzes fan fiction to get a sense of how more amateur writing compares.) His conclusions on this and similar writing advice questions can be useful to writers looking to improve their own work. I also had fun watching Blatt analyze whether authors follow their own writing advice, or whether they're full of hot air. Blatt also delves into issues of co-authorship, such as: Can you tell who wrote "most" of the book that has two author names on the cover? (Or just one name, with an uncredited ghost writer?) And he addresses questions of readership, such as whether the books on the new York Times Bestseller list are getting less complex. (Spoiler: They are.) Blatt covers an interesting array of topics, leaving much of the analysis open to the reader. (Does it even matter that todya's bestsellers are written at a lower grade level than in previous decades?) My least favorite chapter was "How to Judge a Book by Its Cover." While a lot of Blatt's points are fascinating, occasionally he stumbles onto the obvious, and that was the most true in this chapter. He takes pages just to point out that the more famous you are as an author, the bigger your name tends to be on the cover of your books. Well...duh. Of course, he attaches numbers to the issue (What percentage of the cover does your name take up? What's the largest your name is ever likely to be?), but overall I didn't think the issue was worth going on about. This is a fascinating book. From here, I think the only real questions are what we, as readers, will do with the information Blatt provides. Highly recommended (particularly for those of you looking to read more nonfiction! It's a book about books!).

  8. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca Renner

    I'm a big numbers geek, so this was an interesting peek into word usage analysis.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Cynda

    Basically basically Ben Blatt uses statistics to discern what writers use certain characteristics and to discern to what degree/statistical level. Blatt discusses a variety of topics, including word choices, types of writing, gender of writers. And much more. It took me a few chapters to realize that Blatt was writing a style book. Instead of talking about writing in theory, he is using statistics to back up his assertions. One of the injunctions I came up with was to write using nouns and verbal Basically basically Ben Blatt uses statistics to discern what writers use certain characteristics and to discern to what degree/statistical level. Blatt discusses a variety of topics, including word choices, types of writing, gender of writers. And much more. It took me a few chapters to realize that Blatt was writing a style book. Instead of talking about writing in theory, he is using statistics to back up his assertions. One of the injunctions I came up with was to write using nouns and verbal to avoid adverbs. Blatt says that based on statistics that only a certain group of adverbs should be avoided by writers who want their work read. No hints from me. Easy Read. With a light read, I was able to understand the charts and the point of that part of the (rhetorical) argument. A style books wit h stats. Never in my wildest dreams. A keeper.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    Now that computers have demonstrated how the words of everyday life differ from words of academia and have produced corpi of words and phrases and from books, speeches and even overheard conversations, it was only a matter of time for a popular work exploring word and sentence patterns in literature to emerge. Ben Blatt begins with the Federalist Papers which through word analysis determines (finally?) who wrote what. He checks word frequency of popular authors (hence the title), the use of short Now that computers have demonstrated how the words of everyday life differ from words of academia and have produced corpi of words and phrases and from books, speeches and even overheard conversations, it was only a matter of time for a popular work exploring word and sentence patterns in literature to emerge. Ben Blatt begins with the Federalist Papers which through word analysis determines (finally?) who wrote what. He checks word frequency of popular authors (hence the title), the use of short opening sentences, the frequency of anaphora (repetition of phrase) and the frequency of one sentence closing paragraphs. There is data about the size of the author’s name on a book cover, the use of exclamation points and more. Most incisive for me, was the longitudinal study of word length in NYT best selling fiction. Charts on pages 108-112 show, but do not discuss, the dramatic trend to shorter words. Is this a dumbing down of the reading public, or does it signal a preference for sleeker prose? This is browsing book. It can entertain you for an afternoon.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Michael Perkins

    This is a gimmick book. Is it really a surprise that, by these metrics, the worst writers include the authors of Twilight, Fifty-Shades of Grey, and Dan Brown? Or that the the reading level for the NYT bestseller list has slid precipitously in the last 50 years? Ot that James Patterson uses the most cliches? Some of the charts can be interesting, but the surrounding prose is verbose. I'm glad I got this one out of the library. Read (or reread) "The Elements of Style" instead. "Omit needless words, This is a gimmick book. Is it really a surprise that, by these metrics, the worst writers include the authors of Twilight, Fifty-Shades of Grey, and Dan Brown? Or that the the reading level for the NYT bestseller list has slid precipitously in the last 50 years? Ot that James Patterson uses the most cliches? Some of the charts can be interesting, but the surrounding prose is verbose. I'm glad I got this one out of the library. Read (or reread) "The Elements of Style" instead. "Omit needless words," especially adverbs. And go easy on the exclamation points. Got it!

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jeanette

    This is excellent in the sense of being exact. Similar to an actuary figuring the precise percentage of possible future you own if recording enough honest and real criteria about you, your health, your lifestyle. But instead of the facts of cigarettes smoked, or number of beers you drink a week- it is the words of the product that are counted and analyzed to their importance repetitions or equivalencies of habits or parts of speech etc. For me it was a 4 star at the least in the interest it held This is excellent in the sense of being exact. Similar to an actuary figuring the precise percentage of possible future you own if recording enough honest and real criteria about you, your health, your lifestyle. But instead of the facts of cigarettes smoked, or number of beers you drink a week- it is the words of the product that are counted and analyzed to their importance repetitions or equivalencies of habits or parts of speech etc. For me it was a 4 star at the least in the interest it held for my own attention and also the explanations of digital counting procedures used. That was absolutely 4 star. What it lost for me was the rather limited amounts of "classics" and "bestsellers" used in the comparisons of every charting. Do authors follow their own advice? I found those sections quite intriguing. And also have aversions to adverbs and feeling words quite beyond the ordinary constant reader myself. Especially all the effusive gushers. Also the writing fingerprint explained style well. That's a feature to identity "like to like" and it happens (also I've noted the co-author thing going on that way) but didn't perceive how I was doing that. Now I do. But! Come on! Stephen King and Danielle Steel and Nicholas Spark and about 10 other thriller of most $$$ success writers being the predominant core of "stars"?? Yes, Ben Blatt uses sales numbers as "success" criteria. Of course he does. That just does parse to true value. Not for me are at least 2/3rds of the "best" seller writers since 2000. And that's what you will find for majority in this study and charting. Yes, there are some classics and what are considered literary levels of fiction but not near to enough for the products of the past. Even the most recent century past- just not adequate inclusions. But I find this left a humongous hole for all the authors of unique and precious singulars or oddball masterpiece, as well. Not just in quality of classics but in various categories that have been STAR in the last 100 years. Dr. Seuss counts of syllables and short sentence challenges- he answered. The histories of required lengths of first books published as apart from latter in a series. Cliche section analysis. Those all were the best parts of the book and score a full 4 star. All that "cinnamon" and "nod" word favoritism was obtuse both in application and in charting, IMHO. And the modern authors used for those counts inadequate for other than low and middle level easy reading best sellers fare.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Greg

    Fascinating concept, really: the author analyzes fifty English language authors for most of his results revealing such things as bestsellers are are using simpler terms and shorter sentences as the years pass. Is our attention span shorter? Among Texas erotica's most distinctive terms are "Trailer", "Soldiers" and "Bunk". NYorker's? It's "Museum", "Senator" and "Popsicle". Odd. And Agatha Christie novels are 'action filled' but are on the 'quiet end' of the 'loud/quiet' spectrum. I never thought Fascinating concept, really: the author analyzes fifty English language authors for most of his results revealing such things as bestsellers are are using simpler terms and shorter sentences as the years pass. Is our attention span shorter? Among Texas erotica's most distinctive terms are "Trailer", "Soldiers" and "Bunk". NYorker's? It's "Museum", "Senator" and "Popsicle". Odd. And Agatha Christie novels are 'action filled' but are on the 'quiet end' of the 'loud/quiet' spectrum. I never thought of Jane Marple knitting and thinking 'action filled'. Oh, and Proust (non-English, natch) used 'mauve' incessantly also, but that's not noted here. I think Blatt could have had thousands of pages and created a doorstopper of a book and I found myself thinking of the things Blatt might have included or excluded. It's a fun read.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Justin

    I learned so much about novels and authors throughout this entire book. Normally not a fan of nonfiction, I couldn't stop talking about this book and recommending it to everyone. It may be nerd lit but it's well worth a read if you're interested in books about books/classic literature.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Blythe Beecroft

    I was quite simply enthralled by this book. It is the perfect nexus of data science and literature. My favorite chapters delve into aversion to adverbs, gendered word choice, famous opening sentences, and the frequency of anaphora. I was impressed by how clearly the author articulates his methodology throughout the book. It was such a joy to make connections and compare some of my favorite authors and literary works, like encountering old familiar faces but seeing them with new eyes. After each I was quite simply enthralled by this book. It is the perfect nexus of data science and literature. My favorite chapters delve into aversion to adverbs, gendered word choice, famous opening sentences, and the frequency of anaphora. I was impressed by how clearly the author articulates his methodology throughout the book. It was such a joy to make connections and compare some of my favorite authors and literary works, like encountering old familiar faces but seeing them with new eyes. After each chapter I immediately wanted to turn to the closest human and relay everything I had read. It is that fascinating! This is definitely a book I will continue to think about.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Katie/Doing Dewey

    Summary: This book was wonderfully entertaining with lots of great fun facts, but a little bit light on the statistics. As book bloggers or avid reads, I suspect most of you reading this post have thought at least a little bit about what qualities make a book one of your favorites. In this book, the author tries to answer that and other intriguing bookish questions objectively using statistics. Questions he addresses include: "What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Do men and women write Summary: This book was wonderfully entertaining with lots of great fun facts, but a little bit light on the statistics. As book bloggers or avid reads, I suspect most of you reading this post have thought at least a little bit about what qualities make a book one of your favorites. In this book, the author tries to answer that and other intriguing bookish questions objectively using statistics. Questions he addresses include: "What are our favorite authors’ favorite words? Do men and women write differently? Are bestsellers getting dumber over time? Which bestselling writer uses the most clichés? What makes a great opening sentence? How can we judge a book by its cover? And which writerly advice is worth following or ignoring?" (source) The answers to all of the questions above were entertaining and informative. I loved learning about what books categorized best sellers, classics, or literary fiction all had in common and where they differed. The author did a great job writing about all his results in entertaining and thoughtful ways, even when those results related to sensitive topics such as gender. He also was clear about the limitations of his work. I had a ton of fun reading this book and I think that will be true for any lover of books. The graphs the author used were designed very cleverly to make the concepts he was discussing as clear as possible. His verbal descriptions of the questions he was asking were also clear and precise. My one complaint with this book was that several times the author said something like "but you're not interested in the details of the statistics". Oh, but I was! Having read The Signal and the Noise, I know it's possible to write a book that includes some technical details about statistics while still being entertaining. That's what I really wanted from this book. I would definitely still recommend this. It was such an enjoyable read! But don't go into expecting a lot of depth on the stats. This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey

  17. 4 out of 5

    Bryan Alexander

    What can digital technology add to the humanities? The digital humanities field has emerged as a robust academic answer to this question (and I once got into a shouting match with Stanley Fish about it). Ben Blatt's Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve is a very quick and accessible introduction to some aspects of this field, namely machine analysis of literary texts. Each chapter of Blatt's book sees him applying data crunching to different literary questions. Some are interesting and even provocativ What can digital technology add to the humanities? The digital humanities field has emerged as a robust academic answer to this question (and I once got into a shouting match with Stanley Fish about it). Ben Blatt's Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve is a very quick and accessible introduction to some aspects of this field, namely machine analysis of literary texts. Each chapter of Blatt's book sees him applying data crunching to different literary questions. Some are interesting and even provocative, like investigating male and female styles (31ff). Others are useful advances on classic text authorship questions (59ff). Others are entertaining at first, but ultimately not too interesting, like looking for how often authors use adverbs (9ff), or how often opening sentences are short (197ff). The chapter on relative sizes of author's names on book covers (177) adds nothing to the understanding of even the most casual book shopper. Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve is very easy to read, and spikes the data with enough humor and love of reading to win over the most math-phobic reader, as befits a journalist who's also written about baseball. If you haven't looked into applying technology to the humanities, it's a good first read, especially the better chapters.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Beanie

    This book was wonderfully fascinating, both as a reader and a writer. Have you ever wondered what makes a book a bestseller? If writers follow their own advice? Or many other things about the composition of books? This book can tell you. It answered questions that I didn't even know I had in an insightful, interesting, fun way. I will think of the things that I learned from it often.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Patti Miller

    Quite a bit of fun! Learned a few new ways to look at writing and reading.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Christian Paula

    Cool look into the big data of writing. A fun romp.

  21. 5 out of 5

    K.M. Weiland

    Fascinating stats that provide an insightful “behind the scenes” look at what make great books and authors tick.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jamie Collins

    A fun book if you like metrics and statistics. It opens with a discussion of an effort to determine the authorship of 12 essays in The Federalist Papers which were claimed by both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Never mind the intellectual concepts therein: in 1963 a couple of statisticians analyzed the frequency of several common words in the other essays which were known to be written by either author - for example, Madison used the word “whilst” in over half of his essays, while Hamilto A fun book if you like metrics and statistics. It opens with a discussion of an effort to determine the authorship of 12 essays in The Federalist Papers which were claimed by both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Never mind the intellectual concepts therein: in 1963 a couple of statisticians analyzed the frequency of several common words in the other essays which were known to be written by either author - for example, Madison used the word “whilst” in over half of his essays, while Hamilton never used it. Then they counted the frequency of those same words in the disputed essays, and used the results to assign authorship. Here Blatt shows that the same technique can be used to provide strong evidence of authorship in all kinds of books. He provides nice charts to demonstrate, for instance, that the number of uses of the words “what” and “but” per 10,000 words can clearly show that Robert Galbraith’s books were written by J.K. Rowling and not Louise Penny or Michael Connelly. (There are several charts and graphs in the book, and I'm not sure how readable they would be on an e-ink reader.) Citing the common advice to avoid adverbs in prose, particularly the “-ly” adverbs (e.g. “he said angrily”), Blatt counts the use of those adverbs in books which are considered great (from authors such as Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Austen) and others considered less great (authors Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Stephen King). He examines the critical rankings (including the Goodreads rankings) of the books to see if there is a correspondence. There’s a section on guessing whether prose has been written by a man or a woman. There’s a discussion about the frequent use of exclamation marks, which Elmore Leonard advises strongly against. The author downloaded every sex story on Literotica.com (“76 million words of pure filth”) to determine how often American writers and British writers used certain words, like “brilliant”. He downloaded a ton of Twilight fan fiction to see if any of the work would pass for Meyer’s. The are lots of other fun statistics, like the fact that 46% of Danielle Steel’s novels mention weather in the first sentence (in reference to another of Leonard’s rules) and that James Patterson uses 160 cliches per 10,000 words. The notes at the end list every single book used for these analyses, and the author describes how he chose “great” and “non-great” books. He worked mostly with authors who published multiple novels, so that he could get adequate statistical samples.

  23. 4 out of 5

    hayden

    i bought this, today, on a whim, at the same time as laini taylor's new book (which, THANK GOD, is out now !!!!!!!!!!1). i also, on a whim, binged the whole thing at a café. it was cool as fuck. as i said to a couple of my friends, i wanted it to go on for another couple hundred pages. [how cool this would be as a series!! or perhaps we can get longitudinal and follow some of the young authors cited here (e.g., gillian flynn, jonathan franzen, zadie smith, veronica roth, etc.), who haven't relea i bought this, today, on a whim, at the same time as laini taylor's new book (which, THANK GOD, is out now !!!!!!!!!!1). i also, on a whim, binged the whole thing at a café. it was cool as fuck. as i said to a couple of my friends, i wanted it to go on for another couple hundred pages. [how cool this would be as a series!! or perhaps we can get longitudinal and follow some of the young authors cited here (e.g., gillian flynn, jonathan franzen, zadie smith, veronica roth, etc.), who haven't released many books (or at least have potentially fruitful futures), through their careers and see if things change as time passes!! i would buy all of them. just sayin'.] i didn't give it five stars because i was extremely triggered by this sentence: "The rest of the [trade paperback] list had some more literary fiction, but also works by authors Gillian Flynn, Nicholas Sparks, and James Patterson, who seem to defy the list's goal of giving "more emphasis to literary novels." *heart attack* WHAAAAT?! gillian flynn is leagues above the other two in terms of literary merit and basically every other metric by which writing can possibly be measured, except maybe prolificacy . . . she does take her time, that one. i can understand where he's coming from if he's separating literary fiction and commercial fiction purely in terms of popularity, but i don't think that's what he's doing. oh, well. the rest of this was bomb diggity dawg ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  24. 4 out of 5

    victor harris

    " Numbers" in the title is the operative word. If you love data, charts, and graphs as applied to literature, then you will be in your element. Mildly interesting in spots, such as use or overuse of adverbs, but on balance quite tedious. The basic methodology is computer generated information about what author preferred what words. I am not sure writing can be reduced to quantification and statistics. The book makes some statements to that effect but is not very convincing and the delivery was l " Numbers" in the title is the operative word. If you love data, charts, and graphs as applied to literature, then you will be in your element. Mildly interesting in spots, such as use or overuse of adverbs, but on balance quite tedious. The basic methodology is computer generated information about what author preferred what words. I am not sure writing can be reduced to quantification and statistics. The book makes some statements to that effect but is not very convincing and the delivery was largely as dry as the statistics.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kevin Hodgson

    Did more scanning than reading, but his lines of inquiry were interesting to follow .. and the charts of data were worth careful looks

  26. 5 out of 5

    Vanessa

    I liked the intersection of math and writing. This book has some great insights and funny discoveries. There was a good sample of authors included and it highlighted some great writing.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Marni

    Fun and an easy read. For the right person, this qualifies as a beach book.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Leona

    Who says Data Analytics can't be fun?

  29. 4 out of 5

    Margaret

    This number-crunching look at literature is a fun filled treat for book nerds. For instance, How many times is the word "she" used in The Hobbit? Once! Please note, I am neither upset nor outraged by this. Just fascinated. Women write measurably differently from men, as do British writers from Americans, and it's pretty much as impossible for a writer to disguise his or her style under a pseudonym or for a co-author's style not to be distinguishable when a primary author uses multiple collaborato This number-crunching look at literature is a fun filled treat for book nerds. For instance, How many times is the word "she" used in The Hobbit? Once! Please note, I am neither upset nor outraged by this. Just fascinated. Women write measurably differently from men, as do British writers from Americans, and it's pretty much as impossible for a writer to disguise his or her style under a pseudonym or for a co-author's style not to be distinguishable when a primary author uses multiple collaborators. Just a couple more examples of the fun stuff here: Of 21st century bestsellers, James Patterson has 4 of the top 5 highest number of cliches per 100,000 words when compared to entries in The Dictionary of Cliches: A Word Lover's Guide to 4,000 Overused Phrases and Almost-Pleasing Platitudes. Ray Bradbury, who named "cinnamon" as one of his favorite words (the other being the excellent "ramshackle"), does use that word more frequently than almost any other author in the 50-author pool Blatt uses in this book -- but it turns out that Bradbury has a clear love for naming flavorings and ranks top in use of spearmint, nutmeg, licorice, and lemon. And there are so many more great facts, tables, and graphs here. Enjoy!

  30. 4 out of 5

    Thomas Edmund

    You'll often hear that writing is subjective, to take writing rules with a grain of salt (or more). However in Blatt's analysis he takes a statistical and scientific approach to analyzing novels and attempts to settle some concepts objectively. The result is a slightly unusual read, as a science AND writing nerd I absolutely loved it. A creative type may find the statistical aspects somewhat boggling, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend the book as part of learning to write creatively (perhaps m You'll often hear that writing is subjective, to take writing rules with a grain of salt (or more). However in Blatt's analysis he takes a statistical and scientific approach to analyzing novels and attempts to settle some concepts objectively. The result is a slightly unusual read, as a science AND writing nerd I absolutely loved it. A creative type may find the statistical aspects somewhat boggling, and I wouldn't necessarily recommend the book as part of learning to write creatively (perhaps more a laugh for more jaded writers). Chapters I particularly liked were the first, an examination of adverbs, chapter 7 on cliche and chapter 9 on beginnings and endings. While anther chapter 'write by example' focused on writing advice it felt like a very brief overview (it really only captured a couple of points like don't use ! exclamation marks and be succinct, I felt like a whole book could be spent on analyzing writing advice) The other chapters ranged in quality and interest, my main complaint of the whole book was that the topics seemed somewhat random, it wasn't clear whether Blatt set out to answer questions like 'are there differences between UK and US writers?' or these were some of the various factors that arose from his analysis. The net effect is that reading through Nabokov's... felt somewhat meandering. Overall I really enjoyed the subject even if just for the stronger chapters.

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