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Dr. Universe

Classics and page-turners

 

 

Dr. Universe:

What’s the best story ever made in the world?

Jada, 13, New Jersey

 

Dear Jada,

Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. At first, they told these stories out loud, then they started to write.

There are more than 100 million published books on our planet now, and to find out which one is best, I visited my friend Matthew Jockers. He’s a professor at Washington State University who combines his love of stories with computer science to research what makes some books bestsellers.

He uses a computer algorithm which can read a book super-fast—way faster than even the fastest reader in our world (who can read 25,000 words a minute). The algorithm is called the “bestseller-ometer,” and it pays attention to both the words and big patterns of a book.

Jockers told me that bestsellers tend to be page-turners. These books have rhythm and patterns, especially when it comes to how the writer creates and resolves conflict. These stories often have characters who get into trouble and then get out of trouble again.

We might see this kind of pattern in books like “Harry Potter” and “The Hunger Games.” These books also have a lot of cliffhangers.

Still, the answer to your question goes beyond just looking at the bestseller list. We might also think about the best book in another way. Jockers said some of the best books are those that cross cultural boundaries.

Some books connect us no matter what language we speak or where we come from. Jockers said one of the writers who has reached readers around the globe is William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare lived more than 400 years ago, but people everywhere from Japan to Germany to France to the U.S. still watch and read his plays.

We might also think about the “best” ones as the books that have stood the test of time. In this case, books that were written long ago have a better shot at taking the title of best book. 

One book that was written in Ancient Greece was an adventure story called “The Odyssey.” It’s about a man who is on a journey home. People tend to like books where a hero goes on a quest and returns home, Jockers added.

The best book might also be one that changes the world. It might make humans think about things in new ways.

Finally, the answer to your question might just be that it’s a matter of opinion.

“The best one is the one you think is the best book,” Jockers said.

Maybe you have a favorite book you like to read again and again. When you flip through the pages, maybe you find something new that you never noticed before.

But perhaps the best story is one that hasn’t even been told yet. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll be the one to write it. 

 

Dr. Universe

Do you have a question? Ask Dr. Universe. Send an email to Washington State University’s resident scientist and writer at Dr.Universe@wsu.edu or visit her website, askdruniverse.com.

 

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