While driving to work this morning, I decided rather than blasting my usual Janet Jackson tunes that I would listen to NPR. I usually like to listen to either this or the Eric and Kevin Show on 101.9 when the sound of music starts to sound like a construction zone. I also like to listen to NPR when I need to stay in “thinking” mode, but I digress. As I buzzed up the highway a story caught my attention. It was about a new study that has found correlation between personal writings and Alzheimer’s.
Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto, decided to take the works of author Agatha Christie and feed them into a computer that would compute data about the vocabulary. What he found on her 73rd novel was quite interesting.
Her use of words like “thing,” “anything,” “something,” “nothing” – terms that Lancashire classifies as “indefinite words” – spiked. At the same time, number of different words she used dropped by 20 percent. “That is astounding,” says Lancashire, “that is one-fifth of her vocabulary lost.”
Before jumping the gun and publishing the results of his study, Lancashire waited two years and consulted numerous pathologists and linguists.
And Christie’s 73rd book, Ian Lancashire says, seems to hold more explicit signs of trouble. It is universally dismissed by critics as being full of errors and poorly plotted. Not only that, the title of the book is Elephants Can Remember, and the central character is a female novelist who is struggling with memory loss as she tries to help Hercule Poirot solve a crime that occurred in the past.
When Lancashire read the book, he felt that Christie was actually sensing what was happening to her. “I realized,” he says, “I was seeing the author in the text in a way that no one had seen the author in the text before.” The idea that she would keep writing, even as this was happening to her, Lancashire says, “struck me as heroic.”
For nearly two weeks now I’ve been trying to come up with a blog entry centered around writing and after hearing this story, I knew I had found it. It also made me wonder if the struggle to come up with an interesting entry would prove that I myself had begun to develop some sort of stunt in my writing ability. Nevertheless, I felt this study Lancashire completed could provide insight into the minds of writers. Think of what we could discover about authors’ writing styles if we could analyze their writing with the help of technology. We could figure out why Kurt Vonnegut was so twisted or why Jodi Picoult continually chooses depressing themes in for novels.
Since I do not have the capability to feed my own work into a computer for analysis, perhaps this week I will reflect on my own writing habits. Maybe I’ll discover the truth to why I write the way I do or why I choose certain topics to write about. Maybe I’ll also discover why I question so many subjects and use obnoxiously pretension phrases beginning with “maybe”…but probably not.