“You are anthropologists,” I said. “Suppose you had only these lists as the remains of `The Lottery.’ Obviously you do not have the evidence needed to reconstruct the story, but what evidence in the lists points to what you discovered to be the heart of the story?”
Some played with the puzzle pieces, never discerning any patterns, bored with it all, yet a few wrote their best papers of the semester, pursuing the patterns hidden in the stacks of evidence–the use of the word black and variants of laugh, for example. When these detectives wrote, they did so not only with the authority of their own insights but also with the weight of specific evidence, which they had made their own.
Prompted by their experience, I assigned myself the task of using a word-frequency list as my annual Christmas card, which I printed without title or comment on one side of a 4”x6” postcard:
Thirty-eight times: was. Thirty-four times: unto. Thirty-one times: be. Twenty-eight times: Lord. Twenty times: god, is. Nineteen times: said. Eighteen times: were. Sixteen times: came, thou. Fifteen times: hath. Fourteen times: angel, not, thy. Twelve times: child, days, Mary, things. Eleven times: called, holy, name. Ten times: unto. Nine times: behold, me, my, thee, went. Eight times: before, blessed, Elizabeth, pass, people, saying, son, Zacharias. Seven times: city, fear, great, heard, house, I, Israel, Jerusalem, mother, shalt, womb. Six times: according, David, father, ghost, man, spake, temple, upon. Five times: about, after, also, among, day, filled, Jesus, Joseph, law, many, mercy, now, out, own, seen, spirit, up, wife, years. Four times: acomplished, babe, because, brought, delivered, forth, found, good, hand, hast, hearts, highest, made, Nazareth, returned, shepherds, so, told. Thrice: am, art, away, been, both, call, come, conceived, country, custom, departed, even, every, fathers, Galilee, give, glory, go, incense, John, joy, Judaea, know, manger, marveled, named, old, one, order, peace, salutation, salvation, saw, sent, servant, sought, speak, strong, taxed, wisdom, word, ye, you. Twice: Abraham, abroad, again, age, answered, barren, being, believed, Bethlehem, born, bring, children, Christ, clothes, course, dealt, death, down, drink, enemies, espoused, ever, face, favor, feast, first, fulfilled, Gabriel, grew, haste, heart, hill, just, kept, known, laid, leaped, light, lo, looked, low, lying, manner, men, mighty, mine, month, months, most, mouth, multitude, night, office, over, parents, performed, power, praising, prepared, priest’s, rejoiced, revealed, round, savior, sayings, see, set, shewed, sign, Simeon, sixth, soon, soul, spoken, stricken, swaddling, tarried, thing, three, through, thus,tidings, time, troubled, turn, understanding, visited, voice, waxed, well, whereby, wherein, while, whose, without, women, world, wrapped.
Many take pleasure in recognizing the source, the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ birth narrative. I think of it as “Christmas Deconstructed.”
Word-frequency programs are widely available on the internet, many of them for free. They cannot think for us, but we can use them to think for ourselves inventively.