Explore a book in 10 seconds

Wednesday, July 01, 2009 at 9:00 AM

In his 1979 novel Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore (If on a winter's night a traveler), Italian writer Italo Calvino imagines a character, Lotaria, who uses an "electronic brain" to read her books. Her computer can read a book "in a few minutes", and show her all the words in it, sorted by frequency. In fact, Calvino was fascinated by the research of Mario Alinei, who in the late 1960s created Spogli Elettronici dell'Italiano Contemporaneo, an academic analysis of Italian literary masterworks (including Calvino's Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno).

Alinei's team looked at words used in the Italian language over time, noting changes in their frequency. You can imagine how this work was done forty years ago: operators punching computing cards, a big mainframe computer being fed words overnight, and an encoded output that had to be typeset again into book form.

Now our computing infrastructure can do Alinei's work in a few seconds. Starting today, you'll find a cloud of "Common Terms and Phrases" on the Book Overview page for some of our books. This cloud represents the distribution of words in a book: big terms are more common in the book, while small terms are rarer.

As with the other features on the Book Overview page, the word cloud is meant to offer a new way to explore our catalog. If you are trying to learn about Italian art, a search in our index will find many good books on the Renaissance period. Use the cloud of common terms to tell what each book is about. For example, The Renaissance is more focused on the "canon" of art (see the emphasis to beauty, Greek models, poetry of art), while Renaissance Art casts light on the role of patrons in the art scene (patrons, commission, family). After this 10-second glance at the contents, you can choose which book to study next. Happy reading!


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