Goodreads: Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal about the Classics, Bestsellers, and our Own Writing
Published: March 14, 2017
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?
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 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!).