I’m reading Little Women for the first time and it’s fantastic, but, oh my, Beth is ill and I’m sad. I tend not to read books that make me feel sad and a study published earlier this year suggests that books are being written to meet my preference. Books have steadily started to use fewer instances of emotional language over the 1900s (you can read the original study here).
The study used the Ngram database to look at words used to describe emotion in English books over the 1900s and they found an overall decrease in emotional language. They also found that since the 1960s American books expressed more emotion than in Britain, keeping up a popular stereotype of the British ‘stiff upper lip’. We don’t know if this use of language reflects society’s emotions, although the correlations between emotions and historical events such as the world wars suggest it does.
I really love the idea of using language corpora to look at society and literature, but there could obviously be problems with the conclusions. As the study writers say, it might be that the words to describe emotions have changed over the years, instead of the use of the words lessening. I wonder if perhaps books still have as strong an emotional impact, but the emotions are triggered less explicitly? Perhaps looking to see if people’s perceptions of emotional content correlate with the findings might be interesting? There is probably a study out there on this somewhere. I wonder if something like Goodreads, filled with a large online collection of reviews, could be mined to see what books are discussed as causing an emotional response and if there was any pattern to when these books were written. Obviously this would bias books that are still popular today and throw up other problems, but it might be an interesting study.