Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Lazy Man's Guide to Classic Asian Literature

A rural inn somewhere in Japan, in the dead of winter, long ago--it's the setting for a novel that recently flew up the charts at Amazon. Kawabata Yasunari's Snow Country, you're thinking? No, no, no--it's The Apprentice by indicted White House official Lewis "Scooter" Libby. After reading about it on No-sword, I just had to check it out for myself on Amazon. It was ranked in the 300s at the time, though it is back at 11,106 as I write. I was surprised to see it apparently got good reviews, too.

Anyway, even better than the ranking and the reviews is Amazon's Statistically Improbable Phrases (SIPs). I don't know how those are determined, but I am going to go out on a limb and venture that a book's individual text is measured against a massive corpus using some sort of Markov chain. (If you know what I am talking about, please clue me in because I don't.) Libby's novel's SIPs are:

assistant headman, tiny dancer, man with the pole, mountain trousers, old samurai, lacquer workers, liquid woman, dead hunter, youth hesitated, charcoal maker, youth glanced, yellow fur, man with the club, youth nodded, youth stared, moment the youth, snow wall, young samurai

I think I pretty much get the picture from that.

Then I got to thinking, if I can get a taste of that novel from the SIPs, maybe I should compare it to Kawabata's. Unfortunately, SIPs weren't available for Snow Country as that novel does not have Amazon's Search Inside feature. They were available for Kawabata's Thousand Cranes, however:

tea cottage, tea utensils, tea bowl

Wow, minimalist, traditionalist, Japanese. I think this method is on to something. Let's check them against some Murakami Haruki just to test it out. Wind-Up Bird Chronicle's SIPs:

man with the guitar case, vinyl hat, rice pudding mix, macaroni gratin, ward pool, wig company, duck people, shoe cabinet, wig factory, hanging house, bird sculpture, telephone woman, cooking spaghetti, vacant house

Mundane food items? Check. Surrealism? Check. ("Duck people"?) Perfect. I don't remember if there really were duck people in the novel, but this list smells like Murakami to me.

But let's use this to save some time and read some massive works in, say, 10 seconds or so. I love this one: The Tale of Genji's SIPs: saffron flower. Yep, that's it. "Evocative," no?

How about those massive Chinese novels? Journey to the West (vol. 2-- 1 was unavailable): hooped rod, two little fiends, auspicious luminosity, poled the luggage, travel rescript certified, vast magic powers, his muckrake, brazen ape, white jade steps, cloudy luminosity, subdue the fiend, his iron rod, great snow fall, ginseng fruits, bronze mallet, various fiends, iguana dragon, preparatory mass, steel crop, immaculate vase, our rescript, treasure staff, gloomy complexion, testimonial poem, reverted cinnabar. Could you give a better summary in 4 lines or so?

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: bade the lictors, whirling his sword, bade the executioners, score bouts, assembled his officers, van leader, wooden oxen, own ravine, hundred bouts, forty legions, twenty legions, ten legions, five legions, thirty legions, small chariot, half legion, great shouting, golden axes, double marches, his steed, few bouts, silken bag, third bout, few horsemen, late ruler "Bade the lictors?" I think this one is telling us more about the translator than the work itself, but all those legions and chariots give us an idea.

The last volume of Dream of the Red Mansions: junior maids, outer study, provincial posting, thousand taels, hundred taels, other maids, inner apartments. Lots of people, lots of money, big place. But here, we get a better picture from CAPs, Capitalized Phrases: Lady Xing, Old Ladyship, Rong-guo House, Cousin Zhen, Sir Zheng, Bao Yong, Jia Rong, Their Ladyships, Grannie Liu, Jia Yu-cun, Zhen Bao-yu, Steward Lin, Aunt Zhao, Miss Lin, Sister Adamantina, Prospect Garden, Green Bower Hermitage, Board of Punishments, Grain Intendant, Miss Xi-chun, Prince of Bei-jing, Master Bao, Jia Bao-yu, Board of Works, Commissioner Zhao. A bunch of names, family members, a touch of religion, and punishment. That's the Dream of Red Mansions for you.

Sum up Confucian thought as portrayed in the Analects in 10 words: accordance with the rites, ceremonial cap, benevolent man, loving learning. Thanks, Amazon!

There's an old Woody Allen joke... "I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in an hour. It was about some Russians."

3 comments:

weblogz said...

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Anonymous said...

Editors might make use of SPNs, statistically probably novels, with the lowest per capita SIP count.