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Stats Meet Lit in an Insightful New Book About Writing

Literature and math wouldn't seem to pair well. I doubt you'll find many literature majors doodling calculus formulas on their notebooks. I've been an English major and word nerd since the womb, and when I finished my undergraduate degree, I vowed to never use a number again.

But I'm rethinking my mathphobic ways after reading a terrific new book, Ben Blatt's Nabokov's Favorite Word is Mauve. In a series of essays, Blatt offers "not a close reading, but a close counting" of great literature and the less lofty writing we all do. By applying statistics to literature, Blatt becomes Joe Friday as a forensic English teacher: "Just the stats, ma'am." The results are fascinating. Anyone interested in literature or becoming a better writer will find something to like here: Blatt doesn't just shine a light on writing, he lets in a whole new area of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Blatt's approach is charming in its simplicity and logic: "Successful writers pen hundreds of thousands of words in their lifetime. In any other field with hundreds of thousands of data points it would be quite clear that the information could be mined to examine human behavior and psychology. I believe the same is true for examining words." Blatt proves this point again and again, running the numbers to see if great writers follow their own advice, if adverbs are really as lame as advertised, and how a writer's style varies from book to book and genre to genre.

This book raises a lot of interesting questions that, if you love reading or writing, will scratch you right where you itch. One of the questions is: "How consistent is style anyway?" The data-based answer is: pretty damn consistent. Blatt convincingly explains the concept of a "stylistic fingerprint," and illustrates it with tons of examples. Turns out all of us, like thieves who forgot to wear gloves, can be detected for our crimes or screenplays (if we're in the database, that is).

One of the most enjoyable chapters is on the topic that inspired the title: favorite words, as determined by frequency of usage. Blatt looks at not only the words author love, but the words they lean on. For example, George Orwell liked beastly, quid, and workhouse, but more workmanlike words that pop up in his writing disproportionately include round, kind, and money. Ian Fleming liked lavatory, trouser, and spangled, but relied on round, across, and girl. Ayn Rand favored transcontinental, comrade, and proletarian, but leaned on stood, felt, and voice. This kind of data—which covers dozens of other authors in a huge chart—could launch a zillion articles, not to mention a bazillion trivia questions.

This engrossing book could've been a disaster, like an English class taught by a robot or a poetry reading by Siri. Never mind, those both sound awesome. My point is that Blatt is a careful, clever writer who doesn't use the data to overexplain or oversimplify anything. He points out what the data shows, but doesn't try to say that numbers tell everything—just that they show something, and in fact many specific things about writing. Frequent charts create the feel of an academic article, and this book does have the same basis in research. Fortunately, the writing style goes down far easier than the typical academese.

There are many ways this book could help an open-minded writer. When examining topics such as use of exclamation points, types of opening sentences, and simplicity of prose, Blatt examines categories such as classic literature, New York Times bestsellers, modern literary fiction, and fan fiction. No offense to fan fictionistas, but I think we'd all rather be in the first three categories. As we all try to move up the literary food chain, this book gives several specific targets to hit.

But—disclaimer alert—this book doesn't provide a blueprint for great writing that can be solved like the Pythagorean theorem. While Blatt does make many discoveries and points about writing that support (or discredit) rules of thumb, he keeps coming back to the many exceptions and oddities of writing. Sure, you should avoid clichés, but all writers use them (though none, it would seem, as often as James Patterson). Yes, you should vary the beginning of sentences, unless you're a master of anaphora, like David Brooks. The nuts and bolts of writing turn out to be analyzable but not reducible. Stats can help us understand writing in some new ways, but they can't do it all.

To make sense of the data, you need a sharp data analyst like Blatt, who has achieved something impressive with this book. I've read a lot of books about words, but none like this. If I had read this back in college, it could've changed my life. I may have given my old nemesis math another chance.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Friday April 21st 2017, 3:39 PM
Comment by: Dennis B.
This review is a bit gassy. The author could have looked again and asked, "How can I say this in fewer words?"

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