Literature Trends Show That No One Wants to Feel Anything But Scared


You know that feeling you get when you are reading a book and the language is so emotive and beautiful that it makes you want to break down and weep? Unless you’re a fan of the classics, probably not. A new study out of the Universities of Bristol, Sheffield, and Durham shows that literature over the past 100 years has become increasingly emotionless, unless that emotion is fear, in which case we modern folks loooove being scurred.

Using Google’s database of more than five million digitised books, researchers did searches of mood words that fell into six categories (anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise) and charted the frequency of their use in literary works from the past century. What they discovered was that the emotional content of English language books has been on a steady decline.

“We were initially surprised to see how well periods of positive and negative moods correlated with historical events,” wrote Dr Alberto Acerbi, the lead author of the paper. “The Second World War, for example, is marked by a distinct increase in words related to sadness, and a correspondent decrease in words related to joy.”

The one emotion that’s seemingly on the up-and-up is fear. Fear-based language has become increasingly prevalent in books over the past few decades — a fact that’s hard to argue with when you consider just how much of successful literature recently has to do with dystopias, monsters or kids forced to murder one another in giant arenas.

Researchers also noticed a divergence between American and English literature, with the former being slightly more emotional.

“We don’t know exactly what happened in the Sixties but our results show that this is the precise moment in which literary American and British English started to diverge,” says the paper’s coauthor Professor Alex Bentley. “We can only speculate whether this was connected, for example, to the baby-boom or to the rising of counterculture…In the USA, baby boomers grew up in the greatest period of economic prosperity of the century, whereas the British baby boomers grew up in a post-war recovery period so perhaps ’emotionalism’ was a luxury of economic growth.”

Way to show your baby boomer privilege, yanks.

The study points out that a decrease in emotive language in literature does not necessarily equal out to a decrease in the emotional depths of the people who read it. I might push this even further and say that a lack of emotional language in a book doesn’t mean that the work is in itself emotionless. Perhaps, seeing as we’ve become such a visual culture with so many available reference points, people have just become better at filling in the emotional blanks.

Expression of emotion in books declined during 20th century, study finds [Eureka Alert]
Image via Amy Johannsen/Shutterstock.

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