September 10, 2011

Getting over Pearl Harbor vs. 9/11

Here's the trend over time for the percent of books in Google's digital library (American English) that have the phrase "Pearl Harbor" or "September 11" --

Within 7 years of Pearl Harbor, the attention that writers paid it had settled down to its long-term level, far lower than in the immediate aftermath of the attack. I assume the blip in 1991 is just a 50th anniversary thing.

With 9/11, the print culture can't seem to shut up about it, even if most people aren't as afraid of terrorism as they were. Part of that is due to the attack hitting the home town of American publishing. Not to mention that the attackers were Muslims, who are more frightening than the Japanese to the disproportionately Jewish make-up of the media power centers.

Still I think the other, larger part is that Americans in general are just a lot more weepy than they were 70 years ago. And we're far more into the victimhood paraphilia, as shown by the sharp rise over the past decade or two in "torture porn" movies, not just horror but blockbuster dramas like Saving Private Ryan. We're supposed to identify with the suffering of totally helpless victims, rather than the courageous stand taken by the would-be targets of the enemy.


  1. I'm assuming that the references to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are in the titles, not the text, right?

    If so, then it could be the case that the way we title books in the 21st century is more cutesy than the matter-of-fact titles of the mid-20th century. 9/11 lends itself neatly to a short, pithy title, though it could be argued that Pearl Harbor is similarly short.

    For example, if a writer wanted to write about Pearl Harbor in the 1940s, he or she may not have to reference the actual place, as it was so universally known in American culture. Perhaps they referenced the name of the harbor, ships, generals or leaders, whatever. The point is that many other words at that time would have elicited the same idea.

    I'm not so sure that's the case anymore. We seem to like to play with words, and make plays on words, but the actual title is generally a short cute saying, of one to four words. In better works there's a : and a subtitle. MY hunch is that 9-11 is such a easy "phrase" that we use it easily, like 24-7 or 7-11 or other numerical phrases.

    Just a thought.

  2. Ngrams searches the full digitized text of their books.

  3. Perhaps the WWII was more "grandiose" than the "War on Terrorism", reducing the relative importance of the trigger event?

    Pearl Harbour has to compete with the D-Day, the campaigns of Patton and McArthur, the Holocaust, the atomic bombs, etc. (an additional point is that Pearl Harbour was attacked by Japan, when Germany is the country that history remembers as the "Big Bad" in these war).

    In contrast, perhaps the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are more soft-intensity, without big symbolic moments

  4. In "Private Ryan" we identify more with Tom Hanks' character. It's a surprise that the guy at the cemetery is Ryan. And he feels guilty about whether he can measure up to the the soldiers that died in the course of bringing him home. I think one of them says "This guy better cure cancer or something".

  5. 9/11 was a single event that involved civilians. Pearl Harbor was a surprise but it was an attack on military personnel set in the context of an existing world war.


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