'Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve' Crunches The (Literary) Numbers In his new book, statistician Ben Blatt loads thousands of books, new and old, into a vast database and uncovers intriguing patterns in how our favorite authors write.
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'Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve' Crunches The (Literary) Numbers

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'Nabokov's Favorite Word Is Mauve' Crunches The (Literary) Numbers

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Bear with me because we're going to spend a minute or so talking about statistical analysis, you know, the kind used to analyze data and predict who might win March Madness or an election. But what if we used data to look at literature? NPR's Glen Weldon tells us about a new book called "Nabokov's Favorite Color Is Mauve" (ph) and the patterns it reveals.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: A statistician - his name is Ben Blatt - loaded thousands of novels into a huge database and crunched the numbers. One thing those numbers show is that male novelists write overwhelmingly about men. Women read about male and female characters roughly equally. Another thing - cliches.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Now or never.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: With all my heart.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nick of time.

WELDON: Writers are supposed to avoid cliches like the plague. Who uses the fewest? Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Jane Austen, all women. The top three cliche abusers? Men - Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Wolfe, and coming in at number one, James Patterson, whose go-to cliche, believe it or not, is...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Believe it or not.

WELDON: Let's talk adverbs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Happily.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Nearly.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Suddenly.

WELDON: Your teachers warned you not to use too many. And it turns out their advice holds up. Of the novels that dominate the lists of great books, 2 out of 4 contain few adverbs. Now, this stuff might not surprise you exactly, but it's fun to see your vague notions about writing turned into stark numerical facts. Here's one. Every author has a word that they use much more than others. Here's Jane Austen's.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Civility.

WELDON: Makes sense, right? How about Herman Melville?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Whale.

WELDON: You probably saw that coming. Here's Agatha Christie's three favorite words.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Inquest. Frightful. Alibi.

WELDON: And as for Tom Wolfe, his favorite word is [expletive]. Ben Blatt's book gets its title from Vladimir Nabokov's favorite word - mauve. He used it at a rate 44 times higher than it's found in other people's writing. That's a lot of mauve. I'd say something about purple prose here but that would be a cliche. I'm Glen Weldon.

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