Two cities have loomed over the literary imagination of English-language books for two centuries: London and New York, home to the great publishing houses of the English language. But the influence of both has begun to wane over the last quarter-century.
A graphical representation of their weight in book culture comes to us from the artist Edgard Barbosa and the lesser-known Google book data machine called Ngram.
Ngram can count how many times names or phrases appear in the 30 million volumes in the Google Books database. Barbosa plugged several cities into it: London, New York City, Rome, Paris, Chicago, Tokyo, Madrid, Beijing, Mumbai, India, and Cairo. He then created a graphic from the data.
“It was interesting to see how interest in cities are always constant, while differing from era to era,” Barbosa wrote. “Also, there's much to be said on historical facts, and books written about cities."
“First, the obvious … English-language books tend to feature English-language cities, like New York and London,” the website Gizmodo wrote, summarizing the data. “But beyond that, things get more interesting. For example, Rome starts off strong — thanks to its strong hold on the Victorian-era imagination — and peters out in contemporary times. Meanwhile, Beijing and Mumbai are nearly absent (with the exception of a few blips during the peak of Britain’s colonial reign) from the 19th century, but explode over the past two or three decades.”
Barbosa didn’t include one great world city in his graphic: the last megalopolis Western culture created on its march westward across the globe, a city that’s now a crossroads of Asia, Latin America and North America: Los Angeles.
Plug in Los Angeles alongside New York into the Ngram database and you’ll find, unsurprisingly, that Los Angeles lags behind: New York still appears in books about 10 times more often than Los Angeles does. Pursuing the data myself, however, I found that New York peaked in the late 1970s and has been steadily declining ever since, suggesting that Gotham’s hold on the literary imagination is waning. Or, seen another way, perhaps the data are a reflection of the widening curiosity of English-language readers and their diversity.