Lies, damned statistics and cool graphs

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, real graphs from Google Ngrams that count the number of mentions of a search term in Google Books. 

To detect changes in the zeitgeist has been notoriously difficult. But not now. With the wonderfully elegant Ngram from Google you can track the highs and lows of everything from cheese to Zoroastrianism. Recently, I have been praising Arnold Bennett and Hugh Walpole (as much their personalities as their books) and wondering if I would have liked to have had a pint with Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey (no). As you can see from the Ngrams below I am clearly on the wrong side of history when it comes to our man Bennett and caught between a rock and a hard place with Walpole and Strachey.

Virginia Woolf’s death in 1941 did nothing to dent her rising popularity, whereas Bennett’s death in 1931 was followed by a fall in interest that has only begun to level out in the last ten years. The publication in 1956 of the letters  between Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey can clearly be seen in the graph. Reginald Pound’s biography of Bennett published in 1954 could only detain but not reverse his downward trend in interest in him and his works.

Hugh Walpole and Lytton Strachey are the twin dark stars of publishing, their destinies strangely intertwined. Michael Holroyd’s 1967 biography of Lytton Strachey momentarily reawakened (or reflected)  interest in his work, whereas Rupert Hart-Davis’s biography of Hugh Walpole, published in 1952, two years before Bennett’s, maintained interest in him for less than a decade before the downward course began again.

For those of you interested in what a graph of cheese and Zoroastrianism would look like, it looks like this.

Next the works of Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate from 1913 until his death in 1930.

Leave a comment


  1. So the NGrams pit you against the rest of the googling world? Very neat, but it does mean you can choose your own goalposts to jump through.

  2. As the cheese/Zoroastrianism graph shows, you can choose your goalposts and jump through them with Ngrams. For some searches, such as T.S. Eliot, it can’t make sense of the full stops and returns some very odd results. But I do find it very hard to resist graphs. I spent a fun-filled Friday night (for me at least) comparing Christianity, Islam, Marxism, Socialism, Communism and Buddhism.

  3. This all sounds like great fun. Thank you for posting. I think I’ll have a go.


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