Last week, I viewed a fascinating TED video with Lauren Zlaznick. Through the results of a study conducted of popular television shows over the last five decades, Slaznick demonstrates how media reflects the attitudes, concerns, and beliefs of our culture. I wondered, as I watched it, if the same was true of books.
Then, lo and behold, only a few days later another TED video was posted (embedded below), by two researchers, Erez Liberman Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, showing how they used a new search tool to study words and/or phrases available in the 5 million books scanned by Google.
Through this video, I learned about the NGram Viewer — an online tool that allows you to conduct customized searches for words and phrases that interest you. So I decided to conduct and compare with what frequency the words diary, journal, memoir, nonfiction, and autobiography have occurred in literature since the year 1900 (the NGram tool allows you to search back to the year 1800).
Watch the video, then scroll below to find out what I discovered.
The results of my search were somewhat surprising. First, I didn’t expect the word journal to have been so popular through time (it’s the red line at the top of the graph). I suspect that the search result doesn’t include only references to journal writing, but also to scientific and trade journals, so the result is probably skewed upward. That said, you can see that the word takes off in an upward arc beginning in about 1970—when journal writing began to appear in popular culture. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future.
I expected that diary (the next line down) would move out of favor during this same period, but it appears to have also risen. The term nonfiction, as I expected, doesn’t even appear in print until around 1940 (it’s the yellow line at the bottom); it’s a fairly new concept, historically speaking.
Most surprising, at least to me, was to discover that, though we’re always hearing about the “glut of memoir” on the market and how there is more memoir than any previous time, the word itself was used more in 1900 than it is today. In fact, looking at the green line on the graph, we can see that memoir dipped from 1900 to 1960 and then began a steady, slow rise to the year 2000. And it hasn’t yet reached the same level it had attained in 1900. My take? There’s definitely room for more!
Honestly? I don’t know what any of this tells us for sure, but it’s fascinating and food for lots of speculation! I’d be interested to hear about what you discover. Run some NGram searches for yourself and then leave a comment letting us know what you found.