Or is everything old, new again? Attention spans, and the willingness to read text which offers depth, seem to shorten and lessen. I sometimes think members of our culture are reverting to pre- printed word ways. Do we become more visual and aural? Then I think about FaceBook, Twitter and texting.
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Are literary classics obsolete?A new study says today's writers are influenced by authors of the present, not the past
BY LAURA MILLER
You have only to look at the one-star reviews given to classic novels on Amazon.com to recognize that quite a few contemporary readers find these immortal works of literature unreadable. Stories that don’t begin with a Hollywood-style bang or that skimp on action are dismissed as “boring.” Subtleties of character and context are overlooked. But more than anything else, the one-star brigade hates the prose of the past. Any writer whose sentences contain multiple clauses typically gets labeled “wordy” or “flowery” (a term that only seems to be used by people who don’t know what it means).
Surely only ignoramuses and resentful students slogging through their required reading feel this way, right? Not according to a new study led by the chair of the mathematics department at Dartmouth College, Professor Daniel Rockmore. In “Quantitative Patterns of Stylistic Influence in the Evolution of Literature,” an article published in the journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, even today’s literary writers have little use for the classics. They are, the study asserts, much more influenced by their peers than they are by the most revered authors of earlier centuries. And these researchers, being mathematicians, have the numbers to prove it.
If it strikes you as peculiar to see numbers guys (the article’s authors are all men) weighing in on literary style, then you haven’t been keeping up with the latest developments in humanities research. Crunching data — especially the vast number of texts that have been converted to a digital format by such programs as GoogleBooks — is all the rage in liberal-arts academia these days. Among other interesting recent projects, researchers have graphed the emergence and usage of particular words or phrases by date, looking for insight into how certain ideas developed historically.