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What books look like without all the words

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Picture: Dr Adam Calhoun

Dr Adam Calhoun is a neuroscientist at Princeton University, who, among other things, writes about how the brain works by using data visualisations.

In a recent post on Medium, and on his blog, he looked at the different uses of punctuation in novels, by using a tool to extract only the punctuation from novels.

Calhoun told indy100 he was inspired by a series of posters:

I was originally inspired by Nicholas Rougeux who had the original idea: take the words out of novels and just display the punctuation. I really just wanted to choose my favourite novel and put up the punctuation all across my wall. But I'm a scientist, so I immediately wanted to know how different authors compare! I first tried Faulkner and McCarthy and got the stunning visual difference that you can see.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy features on the left, while Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner is on the right:

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Picture: Adam J Calhoun

He found that, overall, Blood Meridian contains predominately short sentences, interspersed with a question or two, whereas Absalom, Absalom! is less controlled and contains far more clauses - to Calhoun's preferences:

Absalom, Absalom! is my favorite book. I have always been a fan of more complex writing - it makes you feel like you need to fit your mind into someone else's. I can't stand Hemingway, it's too simple.

Calhoun has run roughly 30 works through his tool, and told indy100 he was most surprised by the loss of the semicolon over the years:

I really would not have noticed that if I hadn't run the statistics on the data but it really does pop out. It seems to have mostly gone away by the beginning of the century.

Faulkner really surprised me. He is known for having fairly convoluted sentence structure - which really does pop out when you look at the strings of punctuation - but in terms of how often he uses it he is very classical. It looks very much like 19th century writing.

Calhoun is currently looking at visualising the texts by a heatmap, and looking at how authors' use of punctuation changes across multiple texts:

I have recently been looking at multiple books from the same authors and have been surprised how consistent they are. For instance, if you look at the Harry Potter books you see that JK Rowling uses punctuation pretty consistently from book to book. You get the same number of exclamations! and questions? even as the theme and tone shifts.

He told indy100 his main finding from his tool was:

That we as readers should pay attention to punctuation! I have honestly been surprised at the reception, I did not think anyone would care. I guess kids these days love punctuation?

Take a look at some other famous literary works, in punctuation form only:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

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Picture: Adam J Calhoun/Wordpress

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

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Picture: Adam J Calhoun/Wordpress

A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen

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Picture: Adam J Calhoun/Wordpress

The tool is freely available on GitHub, should you wish to attempt to produce your own.


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