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Ken Follett busted by Kindle

A technology blogger named Mark Hurst was reading Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth on a Kindle e-reader recently, and made a fascinating discovery. It began when he noticed Follett’s repeated use of the phrase “his heart in his mouth.”

This is how Follett described a character who was nervous or anxious or frightened. It’s not the most refined metaphor to begin with, but there it was – and then a few pages later, someone else’s heart was in his mouth – and then, next chapter, another heart in another mouth – and again – more hearts, more mouths – until I finally finished the book and thought, just how many times did Follett use that ONE metaphor in a single book?

Which brings me back to the Kindle. Digital technology changes the experience of reading books. What might otherwise have taken hours, to scour the text for an irritating phrase, now takes just a few seconds.

And the answer is: 13. Actually 17, if you count the four instances of “her heart in her mouth.” (It seems that men are, on the whole, a lot hungrier for coronary snacks.)

Going forward, let’s hope editors start playing around with their e-readers, too, so they can catch some of this stuff before it reaches print.

(Check out Hurst’s post for a Kindle screen capture of Follett’s repetitive lapses.)

  • Pete

    Using cliches is bad enough, but repeating the same cliche 17 times is simply inexcusable.

  • bruce

    unless follett has been using a manual typewriter then there really is no excuse. Anyone ought to be able to do a ‘Find’ in their manuscript and check for overly repeated words or phrases.

  • dewey_decimal

    Wow, you could have lots of fun playing this game with J.K. Rowling. Whenever Harry’s feeling the weight of the world on his adolescent shoulders, he says things “dully” — particularly in Order of the Phoenix. And half of Hermione’s utterances are said shrilly.

    To be fair, I blame the editors more than the authors. They’re supposed to be the quality control over these kinds of lapses.

  • Karen

    Using a cliche 17 times is bad enough, not even getting it right is even worse — since it’s “heart in the throat” for the panic he describes, not “in the mouth” (which would probably make it difficult to speak and taste pretty bad). Sure, Bartleby’s shows this archaic expression in use in the late 1800′s, but just because you write about a historical time, doesn’t mean you should use expressions in the narrative that are no longer in common use. Sure, it’s in all the dictionaries – just not in common use language or even in any literature for perhaps the last century, I suspect because the imagery is more of someone who is running off at the mouth about his feelings, rather than someone choked up in fear or anxiety (not to mention the imagery, although hearts on sleeves can be just as disturbing). Last I checked – that choking feeling is in the throat, not the mouth.

    I’m surprised he didn’t have them all with their hearts in their boots (rather than shaking in them), as well.

    Of course, the problem with having the editors catch it, is that assumes that the editors actually read the work, rather than skim it a bit and run it through a spell checker. So many novels now are published with properly spelled, but incorrectly chosen words, that the existence of editors or proofreaders may be more more fiction than fact.

  • Nigel Beale

    Kindle didn’t bust Follett, Hurst did. He noticed Follett’s repeated use of the phrase “his heart in his mouth,” all Kindle did was to tell Hurst the number of times this phrase was repeated…and really…does the number matter that much?

    The reader still rules, not the technology.

  • Pete

    I’ve never read any of the Harry Potter books, but my wife and daughter are big fans of the audiobooks, which we listen to in the car all the time. The “dully” comment above reminds me of noticing how often Rowling uses adverbs. I’d love to run a HP book through Kindle and see just how many adverbs there are – I’m guessing it’s an average of one per sentence.

  • Linda M Au

    Nice catch! I’m actually reading this book on my Kindle … but only because everyone else is reading the dang thing. In reality I’m finding the actual writing (the prose) to be dull and lifeless. The plot seems fine, but I’m just not that into it (200 pages in!). I’ll finish it, though. And now I’ll notice all the cliches even more! Thanks for this post! :)

  • Linda M Au

    Karen, please don’t lump proofreaders in with editors. I’m a proofreader by trade, and although I do sometimes read for content and facts (especially if something stands out as Just Plain Wrong), but essentially, by the time the layout reaches me, I’m reading for formatting, typos, grammar, and only stuff that’s staring me in the face. The things you mention are the job of editors and copy editors. We proofreaders do not get paid enough to do their jobs … plus, we usually have all the panicky “RUSH RUSH!” deadlines because those same editors and copy editors got so far behind schedule.

    Just sayin’….. ;)

  • Andrew MacPherson

    hmmm…why was a person reading Ken Follett anyway?

  • Gord Cowan

    Jeez, you people. 13 or 17 times over a thousand pages is hardly an echo. Before trashing Follett, do a Kindle on your last thousand page novel.

  • Yuriko

    Boy you people have lost the art of reading a novel for the sheer enjoyment it brings you. So what if Ken F. used that phrase a number of times – he was displaying the feeling of the character. And how many of you who trash Pillars have ever walked through Norwich Cathedral and the countless other buildings throughout England and Europe and not closed your eyes and remembered passages of his novel?

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