Alix Spiegel

Books Reveal Emotional Climate Of Their Times by Anne Kreamer

An All Things Considered segment by Alix Spiegel exploring what literature can reveal about the emotional character of different eras is a wonderful complement to a previous piece of mine in Harvard Business Review on the cognitive benefits of reading fiction.

"Were people happier in the 1950s than they are today? Or were they more frustrated, repressed and sad?

To find out, you'd have to compare the emotions of one generation to another. British anthropologists think they may have found the answer — embedded in literature.  Several years ago, more or less on a lark, a group of researchers from England used a computer program to analyze the emotional content of books from every year of the 20th century — close

to a billion words in millions of books.  This effort began simply with lists of "emotion" words: 146 different words that connote anger; 92 words for fear; 224 for joy; 115 for sadness; 30 for disgust; and 41 words for surprise. All were from standardized word lists used in linguistic research.

The original idea was to have the computer program track the use of these words over time. The researchers wanted to see if certain words, at certain moments, became more popular.  But Alex Bentley, an anthropologist at the University of Bristol involved in the research, says no one expected much when they set their computers to search through one hundred years of books that had been digitized by Google.

"We didn't really expect to find anything," he says. "We were just curious. We really expected the use of emotion words to be constant through time.  Instead, in the study they published in the journalPLOS ONE, the anthropologists found very distinct peaks and valleys, Bently says. "The clarity of some of the patterns was surprising to all of us, I think."

With the graphs spread out in front of him, Bentley says, the patterns are easy to see. "The '20s were the highest peak of joy-related words that we see," he says. "They really were roaring."

But then came 1941, which, of course, marked the beginning of America's entry into World War II. It doesn't take a historian to see that (to read more...)