If the books we write mirror the people we are and the societies we create, then analyzing the books we’ve written over the last two centuries should reveal some interesting insights about how we’ve changed and who we’ve become. And that’s exactly what we find in a recent article from the Atlantic: “200 Years of Books Prove That City-Living Changes Our Psychology.”
The article looks at new research that used Google’s technology to analyze the words in books written over the last 200 years. Check out the article for some fascinating graphs on how changing vocabulary correlates to the rise of urbanism over that same time. (The title of the article, though, suggests that urbanism caused these changes in how we talk about ourselves, when it appears that the research itself demonstrates mere correlation. A common mistake.)
Among the more interesting findings:
- We’ve seen a notable increase in the language of choice and decision, corresponding to a marked decrease in words like “duty” and “obligation.”
- “Give” is on the decline, while “get” is much more popular.
- Words denoting obedience, authority, and religion have declined steadily.
None of this is terribly surprising, but it’s interesting to see it demonstrated through a quantitative analysis of our own literature.
And the article concludes with an interesting reflection on urbanism and community.
But in some ways, this story of the rise of the individual, at the expense of the collective, appears to contradict the idea that cities force us to rely on each other. In politics, for instance, individualism is often celebrated as a virtue of rural living. In cities, by contrast, we must rely on shared parks instead of private back yards (or farms), and shared subway cars instead of private cars.
But Greenfield says that kind of communal subway experience is different from the one early farmers experienced in rural America when whole communities got together to raise a barn.
“We’re talking about a crowd of individuals, we’re not talking about interdependent people,” she says of your morning commute. In the rural society that she is contrasting here, people know each other. In urban society, many of the people you encounter are interchangeable. Your fellow commuters are different (most days). “Even though a policeman comes to help you,” Greenfield says, “you don’t even know his name.”
Although there’s a lot to like about today’s renewed emphasis on urban living, results like this should make us appreciate the fact that problems like self-centered individuality run much deeper than any social program can possibly hope to solve.