24 March 2017
Nabokov's Favorite 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?
Data meets 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?
Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve is a fun intersection of statistics and literature. His methodology feels less rigorous, in my opinion, than that of the authors behind The Bestseller Code, but this is far more entertaining. It's very much a "I wonder what the percentages would look like if I searched for [insert word]" book: What word does an author use most frequently? Do authors follow their own writing advice? And do American fanfic writers try to out-British the Brits with their slang? (That was a fun one.) Blatt did try to get a wide-ranging sample of books - bestsellers, Classics, critical hits, etc. although he didn't get much into genres outside the authors who have crossed into the mainstream. I have to rap his knuckles a bit about the Gender chapter: it wasn't terrible, but an acknowledgement that he was sticking with the binary for "x reason" would have been a start. Those conclusions felt a bit too facile.
Dear FTC: I bought my copy of this book.