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There are times when I ‘m teaching when I think of the perfect poem, novel, TV show, or movie to illustrate a point.  “How many of you have seen Lord of the Rings?” I might ask.  About half the class raise their hands.  Giving a two-sentence summary of a scene for those not familiar with the movie, I then go on to draw out an analogy to our current concept, mainly for the benefit of those who know who Boromir is. And Lord of the Rings is one of the more popular choices.  Just this week I got no response from asking about Bridge Over the River Kwai (to discuss leadership and responsibility in Chestnutt’s “Sheriff’s Children”) or “A Doll’s House” (to add to our discussion of late 19th century texts about marriage, such as “The Yellow Wallpaper”).  When discussing the opera The Geisha mentioned in Chekhov’s “Lady with the Little Dog” and relating it to the experience of listening to Elgar’s “Cello Concerto,” I had two students come up at the end of class wanting to know which composer I’d mentioned as they had not registered a familiar name at the time.

What these and numerous other examples over the years show is that we do not have access to a collective memory.  Perhaps the desire for collective memory is unrealistic, but even in the mid-90s, certain shows like “Seinfeld” were still popular enough to generate that next day water-cooler moment.  As new media are created and existing ones expanded (hulu, Netflix, Redbox, more cable channels, e-magazines and journals, blogs, nooks, kindles, ipads, youtube, pinterest, etc. etc.), each of us becomes more and more cocooned by our discreet cultural (and political) choices – best represented when watching people on the street or those riding buses (almost everyone is either hunched over their phones or listening to digital music) or watching any political commentator. This troublingly means we (those out of college) have the ability to completely disregard or completely exclude any text that challenges our world view.

That’s why, when reading a couple of New York Times articles recently, I was curious to see if perhaps some form of collective culture does exist after all.  While the individual scholar would find it impossible to analyze the amount of data required to discover certain links and connections, new algorithms have lately been able to raise and answer questions about literary influence, language, and culture.

In “Dickens, Austen and Twain, Viewed in a Digital Lens,” Steve Lohr indicates that sometimes common understandings of influence can be incredibly wrong.  While many would believe that the leading 19th century novelists would be Dickens, Hardy, Melville, and Twain, crunching the numbers shows that the most influential writers in the 19th century were Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott (the writer of the novel Ivanhoe, set in medieval times).  The programme used works with words in a similar way to a biologist examining genes given that words are analogous building blocks.  The fact that Google Books has scanned over 20 million books dating from 1500 (15 million of those in the past 2 years alone) gives a huge database from which to track word usage and related words.  Graphs of word usage are open to the public at this site: http://books.google.com/ngrams.  Putting in the names of favourite or competing authors (such as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot) can show that Eliot enjoyed greater attention (positive or negative?), but, that since the mid 1990s Austen has become more on trend.  Randomly putting in the words “tickle,” “skipping,” and “wiggle” shows that “skipping” is a more commonly used word. Needless to say, I have bookmarked this site for further investigation!

If literary influence is hard to track, sometimes what seems to be easy to see – a movement from a more ornate literary style to a more colloquial, everyday language (via Twain and Hemingway of course) – proves not to be the case at all. Examining fiction, magazines, academic writing, newspapers, and transcribed speech from the last twenty years, the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) has found that there are certain words and phrases that crop up time and time again in fiction but not in other forms of writing.  “Grimaced,” “grunted,” “gritted,” “scowled,” and “wiggled” were the most common past-tense verbs in fiction compared to academic writing.  And when it comes to “brushing,” every one else is brushing their teeth and not brushing lips or fingers against hair as they are in fiction.  COCA also found that there are stock phrases to describe how a character responds to emotions both in action and facial expression.  One can see the quirks of a favourite author (can you guess which writer likes to have his characters raise their eyebrows?) or the unconscious quotation of others’ writing – as well as direct allusion.  You can access COCA’s site to explore language usage at www.corpus.byu.edu/coca/ and if you’d like to read more about the use of computer technology in the humanities, see Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History.

macroanalysis               ivanhoe

However, what can these programmes tell us about collective cultural memory?  It seems that besides a handful of memorable movie lines (e.g. even though I never saw the movie even I have heard the phrase “You had me at hello” a hundred times), references to the past fade more and more quickly.  For example, by 1912, references to the year 1880 had halved from their peak in 1880; it only took ten years for references to 1973 to decline that much.

While the specific details are interesting, perhaps we didn’t need a complicated piece of programming to tell us this.  Just discussing events with my students show that 2005 was a long, long time ago and the 1980s ancient history.  I guess I’ll just have to keep reading and viewing as widely as possible to have some common, young adult touchstones to use besides Harry Potter and The Hunger Games as examples given these two are already fading fast from our memory.

– Eleni Anastasiou