In a column on today's New York Times op-ed page, David Brooks talks of how much we can learn from Google's database of nearly five and a half million books. It's the words used by the authors of those books that tell a story Brooks finds of interest.
By typing specific words into the database, we can learn how often those words were used and when. So it is an interesting map of word usage and thus of shifts in cultural interests and mores.
The books span 48 years. And in that time, the words authors use to describe people and situations have shifted, Brooks says, from words that reflect a caring community towards words that reflect a rise in individualism and self-concern.
There are numerous ways to push back on Brooks' conclusions, among them the fact that authors of books are not the only parameter of language usage. In fact, they may not reflect word usage by whole sectors of the English speaking population.
Nonetheless, his findings do give one pause. They support the argument that we have become more selfish as a society, less willing to share. More ambitious and less empathetic.
I tend to agree with this thinking. However, the immediate heroic responses of so many people who came to the aid of total strangers at the Boston Marathon bombings seems to belie this thinking. And the bravery and compassion of Oklahomans to their neighbors brought low by the recent tornado disaster rebut the findings of increased callousness and self-centered behavior.
Is Brooks right? Are we less concerned about community and more about ourselves? Do we only respond as good neighbors in the wake of horrendous tragedy but shrink back to our self concern when life is otherwise normal? Are we more willing to share a conversation with strangers when brought together by a fire or flood or storm than we are when we find ourselves in line with strangers at the supermarket?