Book Review: Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve
Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve is an enjoyable exercise in re-framing what the reader probably already knows about a favorite writer and discovering references, patterns and facts the reader may not know.
Can great literature be reduced to numbers? No, Ben Blatt answers in Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve (Simon & Schuster, March 14, 2017), a study of literature in terms of certain numerical breakdowns. In a society proliferating with aggregated news, aggregated criticism and dubious assertions solely based on statistics, it’s good to know that at least one of the number counters acknowledges the distinction between art and aggregation. This statistical study of literature includes facts that, properly integrated, could conceivably lead to better writing.
This is what Blatt, a writer, journalist and statistician who co-wrote a book about baseball, provides as a starting point for this fun and interesting book, which makes for light entertainment and amounts to a prompt to think deeper about what one reads. Citing the advice—credited here to Ernest Hemingway and Stephen King among others—not to use ‘ly’ adverbs, Blatt begins by thoroughly counting and examining all the ‘ly’ adverbs several selected famous authors used in their careers. Blatt explains his methodology without details becoming a distraction to his thesis that holding authors to account of their own advice—comparing and contrasting to other authors—and conducting numerical studies of great books is a value.
The results are less trivial than the bestselling Book of Lists if not always as intellectually stimulating as one might anticipate. As the title, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, implies, it’s tempting to get lost in what’s become known as big data, mining Blatt’s findings for trivial pursuits. With a database of thousands of books and hundreds of millions of words (if only those that are digitally accessible), he separates copy blocks with charts, graphs and pictures showing what are authors’ favorite words, whether sexes write differently—Ayn Rand rates as a “masculine” writer by this standard—and if bestsellers are getting dumbed down. Going by authors whose work I know best, such as Rand, E.B. White, Suzanne Collins, Truman Capote, Sinclair Lewis, George Orwell, Agatha Christie, Tom Clancy, Ray Bradbury and Rudyard Kipling—the numbers align with my own value-judgments. In some cases, statistics show certain patterns in the author’s writing.
For instance, Ayn Rand uses fewer exclamation points (333 per 100,000 words), according to Blatt’s analysis, than F. Scott Fitzgerald (356) but more than Stephen King (324), way more than Alice Walker (203), and yet uses measurably fewer exclamation marks than J.R.R. Tolkien (767), Charles Dickens (713) and J.K. Rowling (670), a clustering which stays relatively consistent throughout the analyses.
Blatt, who also examines who uses the most clichés, evaluates the opening sentence and looks at widely accepted pieces of writing advice through these lens, keeping stats tethered to the proper context whenever possible. He notes that an author may have written many more novels in a series which calls for the use of a particular word, for example, and he continuously strives to contextualize the data he presents. He claims that each inquiry or sampling is original, conducted firsthand, and he points out that math knowledge is not a requisite to grasp results.
So his breezy and engaging volume fulfills its promise to provide the reader with an appreciation or deeper understanding of an author or favorite writer. Additionally, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve tests one’s scholarship, conclusions and knowledge—how well do you really know your favorite novel or writer?—and alerts the writer to the trends, patterns and uses of grammar, vocabulary and punctuation in one’s own writing.
Readers may not care that Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov’s favorite word is mauve. Or that Agatha Christie, Virginia Woolf and Ayn Rand use the word suddenly at approximately the same rate. Or that, if using the word not was a contest, Ayn Rand would win and James Joyce would lose, a fact which, given the plots of her novels, does fit the underlying theme of Ayn Rand’s writing and philosophy. Other parts of Blatt’s book, such as his thoughts on the Flesh-Kincaid reading level test in regard to the top New York Times bestselling authors (Evanovich, Koontz, Steele, King, Follett, Le Carre, Ludlum, Patterson, Michener), the use of so-called loud verbs, or the relation of the size of an author’s name on the book jacket cover to its commercial success, show snapshots of today’s culture and offer something to think about. But, mostly, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve is an enjoyable exercise in re-framing what the reader probably already knows about a favorite writer and discovering references, patterns and facts the reader may not know.
Accordingly, Blatt’s account may stir interest and bring new works to the reader’s attention. It may cause you to think about what, how and why you write the way you do. Over the course of his examples, studies and groupings, and some are more compelling than others, the reader can see for himself whether a writer made progress in some regard, depending on one’s knowledge of the writer’s work, career and life. Blatt’s book about books takes words, books and writers seriously, which offers relief from big data dogmatism, keeping numbers in their proper place.
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