Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve by Ben Blatt
In 2002, bookstores were enthralled by the card-counting gamblers from MIT in Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House; a year later Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball showed that baseball could be gamed apart into statistical trends. In 2010, Nate Silver’s statistics-and-politics blog FiveThirtyEight was licensed to the New York Times and in 2012 he and his team presented a nearly perfect prediction of the year’s election results. In 2016, he and nearly every statistically-minded news outlet blew it with a miscomputation heard around the world surrounding a presidency that no one saw coming. While history and the analysis of convenient trends can illuminate certain possible trajectories, there are other variables at play that simply cannot be factored into a statistician’s coding.
In Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, Ben Blatt ignores the unreliability of game theory and the fatigue that has recently seeped from the political spectrum and attempts to untangle trends in the world of books. By running the numbers on word choice, frequency, and paragraph structure, he believes that an unspoken truth will emerge regarding our collective literary intake. “By looking at the patterns,” he writes, “we can appreciate that beautiful moment where the pattern breaks, and where a brilliant new idea bursts into the world.”
Thanks to the recent ebook revolution, Blatt is now able to review and analyze books on the computer. It’s important to note, however, that this analysis is little more than interpreting the results of a “ctrl+f” search of a PDF ebook. “The research won’t be very complex,” he explains in his introduction, and that he’s simply reframing books so that they can viewed “through a statistical lens.” To kick his research off, Blatt discusses the fascinating story of two scientists in the 60s who analyzed the unattributed essays in the Federalist Papers by poring over recurrences of words like “whilst” and “upon” and linking them to other attributed texts by Madison or Hamilton that have a parallel frequency of those words. The Mosteller-Wallace tests solved a major historical mystery and psychologically exposed that people have an inherent tendency to lean on certain words when building sentences.
This sort of rigor does not translate well to the contemporary literary canon. Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve is full of charts (appropriately rendered in a lovely pale purple), but the book begins to read like a compilation of graphs that nobody ever needed to see. While it’s interesting to learn that the word “she” appears once in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit while the word “he” appears just under 1,900 times, that Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham uses only fifty words in total, and that Annie Proulx and Virginia Woolf pinged on a test as being authors of some of the most “masculine” classic novels, much of Blatt’s studies veer far from the realm of classics and settle upon authors who have cranked out a lot of books. This results in a slew of who-cares graphs outlining the use of exclamation points in Elmore Leonard novels, or the use of “thought verbs” in Chuck Palahniuk’s fourteen schlocky books. Blatt devotes many pages to fanfiction and people adopting the styles of their source material, and while psychologically interesting, Blatt ends up graphing out things like the “Percent of Hunger Games Fan Fiction that Uses Brilliant More Often Than J.K. Rowling” (if you can even make sense of that and are curious to know the answer, authors based in the UK come in at 13% and those in the US at only 3%).
While Blatt tries to bring in Salinger, Pynchon, and contemporary names like Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt, he does little with their work besides including their books in a pool of contemporary literary fiction, which he then evaluates as a whole. I suspect that they were left out of Blatt’s more detailed studies because their numbers didn’t work to his advantage. It’s far easier to plot statistical trends when a formulaic author has fifty or so books under their name. In the chapter about cliched first sentences and the prevalence of bad lines about weather, there’s no mention of Madeline L’Engle’s complicated and cheeky recycling of “It was a dark and stormy night”; instead Blatt presents two whole pages of opening sentences by Nora Roberts, as 42 of her 92 books open with a mention of the weather.
While frequently delightful and full of curious statistical discoveries, readers will feel a vague uneasiness over whether or not they’re the intended audience for this sort of book. A title like Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve invokes a vague literary standard, but when readers reach the section where Blatt analyzes word frequency and the suggestion that writers might inherently lean on certain exotic favorites, they’ll find just as thorough there a discussion about Michael Connelly. Based on the comparable page-space devoted to Nabokov and mauve, “Michael Connelly’s favorite word is nodded” would have been just as worthy a title, although it’s certainly not as catchy. Having Nabokov in the title feels like a trick, as so much of the book is about writers like Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and James Patterson. In a book about statistics and how much percentage of a text is devoted to certain ideas, it’s tempting to parse out how much of this work is relevant to a lover of literature and how much is left dealing with the poppiest corners of the book industry.