January 12, 2011
What Have We Been Reading?

Generally speaking, this weekly blog post focuses on interesting books accompanied by our staff’s personal summaries and opinions. This week, I’m more concerned with what everyone else is and has been reading for the past few hundred years, and what those literary choices say about human culture.

Enter Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Essentially, you type in a word or phrase, time period (the maximum is 1500-2008), and the Ngram will assemble a graph charting how frequently that word(s) or phrase(s) was used in books during the time period you selected. I have a deep passion for media, books and culture, so I quickly found Google Books Ngram Viewer to be a very addicting love at first sight.

It’s interesting to analyze culture through this lens and understand why various words may have been used so frequently as opposed to others. Take “culture” as an example (see image, below). The word was virtually nonexistent in 18th century literature but its usage sharply increased throughout later decades as we, as a society, became more focused on the importance and presence of culture. While “culture” may have been minimally used in 18th century literature, words like “proper” were at their climax during this same time period.

Books teach, befriend and transport us to worlds we never imagined, while still reflecting upon our current cultural and societal interests. The ability to visually understand word usage and themes is a powerful opportunity and insight into this human culture we seek to understand and celebrate through the humanities.

My experience with Google Books Ngram Viewer has led me to question what will be the buzzwords of our time and which will fall dormant as we continue into the future. Additionally, I’m interested in the correlation between popular words in books versus other forms of media, and how this relationship will be impacted as we continue into the future. As our needs, interests and desires transform, so will our literature, but it’s interesting to visually observe what’s important and relevant through the lens of books.   

This What-Are-You-Reading-Wednesday post was written by Kristin Hess, the Council’s Food for Thought Ambassador and graphic designer.

Posted In: Miscellaneous

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