Mathematics > Literature ≠ Mathematics < Literature

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, an inappropriate application of a mathematical formula to a literary phenomenon, Franz Kafka. 

If x = An Author and y = Another Author then (x*y)**z, where z = Zeitgeist and * = some kind of mathematical operation and ** another kind of mathematical operation , then does it follow that y > x? Thus when x = Arnold Bennett and y = Franz Kafka is the following Google Ngram inevitable?

To all of the above it would be easy to say that it is wrong. I am all for entering through the wide gate rather than the narrow one (it may not lead to salvation but you will have some very nice lunches on the way). But something is going on in the Zeitgeist, something intangible but with effects that can only be described as tangible. Hence that day in 1972 when the books published on and by Kafka outnumbered those of Bennett’s. Hence too the possibility, according to the graph, and perhaps by my beloved x’s, y’s and z’s, that in the next ten years that position will reversed.

I remember many years ago seeing a film called Pi in which a mathematical genius discovers the magical number that explains everything, including how to make a killing on the stock exchange. Pursued by everyone from evil stockbrokers to evangelical believers in the Messiah, he goes quietly bonkers. I wonder if Hollywood would make a film about a literary genius, played by Keira Knightley, who discovers the Philosopher’s Stone (with plenty of x’s, y’s and z’s) that allows you to predict the next change in the Zeitgeist? Pursued by literary agents whom, I wish to point out, I hesitate to call evil, Hollywood producers, professors of literature and op-ed columnists in the up-market press, she too can go quietly bonkers.

I continue with The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and have arrived at the rise of Christianity.

Leave a comment


  1. Seeing as your addiction to Ngrams seems to have really taken hold, I thought you might like this!

    • Thank you for the link! I enjoyed the talk immensely. I felt they had just the right balance of humour and seriousness to do justice to the mighty Ngram!

  2. but what about minus numbers? The mathematician in my house is temporaily out so I can’t check this, but if you introduce a negative value into the equation, doesn’t it timplode, making Kafka actually a figment of Bennett’s imagination, in around 1960?

    • What a fantastic idea – authors as negative values! You don’t have to build a time machine to change the past. Just fire up the Ngram, stick in some negative numbers and it’s Goodnight Vienna for the likes of Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis and Lytton Strachey!


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