The Book Crunchers


The Stanford Literary Lab, founded in 2010 by Franco Moretti and Matthew Jockers, uses computer analysis to detect hidden patterns in literary texts by “reading” hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of them at a time. Here are a few findings from the new book “Canon/Archive,” which collects 10 of the lab’s research pamphlets.

The Novel Quiets Down

“Loudness in the Novel,” by Holst Katsma, explores how volume functions both in individual works and across the genre as a whole. This chart, based on analysis of a broad corpus of 19th-century British novels, shows how fiction quieted down over the course of the century, as the use of “loud” speaking verbs like “screamed,” “shouted” and “cried” declined from 19 percent to 6 percent of the total, and the neutral “said” gained a near monopoly. Not that characters had stopped talking: The total number of speaking verbs remained fairly constant over the decades, the researchers found.

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Talk Banking to Me

“Bankspeak,” by Franco Moretti and Domnique Pestre, analyzes shifting language patterns across six decades of World Bank annual reports. The study finds a steep rise in abstract bureaucratese like “governance,” “framework” and “priorities,” as well as a spike in “self-congratulatory terms” like “outstanding,” “key,” “stronger” and “better.” (The verb “disagree,” the researchers note, does not appear even once.)

But the oddest finding may be the sharp increase in an innocuous little word: “and.” In 1946, “and” accounted for around 2.6 percent of the words in the reports, a frequency similar to that of average academic prose. But by 2015, as this chart shows, its share had almost doubled, reflecting what the researchers describe as the growing tendency toward long lists of nouns that create the illusion of activity, sometimes despite a “total absence of logic.”

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Mapping London’s Emotions

In “The Emotions of London,” Ryan Heuser, Franco Moretti and Erik Steiner look at how different emotions come to be associated with different locations in fictional London, as represented by texts published from 1700 to 1900. As might be expected, the fashionable West End was increasingly associated with happiness, while Bedlam (an asylum), Newgate (the site of the famous prison) and the Tower of London were more associated with fear. But perhaps more strikingly, the researchers write, most named places in novels were associated with neutral states.

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Which isn’t to say that London life itself had become less emotional. When the researchers analyzed 200-word passages that did not include the names of specific locations in London, the prevalence of both fear and happiness grew substantially. Instead of a general muting of emotion, they write, it appears to have retreated out of recognizable public spaces.

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