cover image Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: And Other Experiments in Literature

Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: And Other Experiments in Literature

Ben Blatt. Simon & Schuster, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5011-0538-8

In this diverting if lightweight work, statistician Blatt (coauthor of I Don’t Care If We Never Get Back) applies data analysis techniques to the work of hundreds of authors, from Jane Austen to E.L. James, to extract insights into literary art and human psychology. Opening with the dramatic story of 1960s researchers who used word frequency techniques to solve the Federalist Papers’ authorship, the book never follows up on the promise of comparably exciting or substantial findings. Blatt applies his techniques to look at topics such as adverb usage, the relationship between word choice and gender, and trends in writing complexity. After quick, clear, but cursory descriptions of methods, Blatt details creative visualizations (charts and graphs are included) and findings, but limits the conclusions that can be drawn (“Trying to draw too much meaning out of these findings is a bit like reading tea leaves”). This leaves the reader with the feeling of having witnessed engaging parlor tricks instead of scholarly inquiry. But parlor tricks are fun, and so is this book. Blatt provides amiable and intelligent narration, and literature enthusiasts will enjoy the hypotheses he poses and his imaginative methods. Agent: Jacqueline Ko, Wylie Agency. (Mar.)