Include Needful Words

A close friend told me a few months ago that her 14-year-old son was reading Infinite Jest for fun. “He comes into the kitchen and says, ‘Listen to this, Mom!’ and then he quotes a passage from page 546 or something.” She sighed. “I never made it past page 200.”

We think of ourselves as living in the age of the excerpt. When pressed, most professors I know admit that they assign fewer pages of reading now than they did, say, 20 years ago. We share these statistics and sigh. Pressed further, we admit to skimming more ourselves, to reading short online articles rather than the lengthier printed versions, to choosing our leisure reading based in part on the lean word count of the book.

The odd paradox of this impression of the dumbed-down reading world is that young people seem to be gravitating toward doorstoppers. And reading them. The New York Times best-seller list for children’s chapter books has at least as many books with a 500-plus page count as its adult list. Witness the Harry Potter phenomenon. Not to mention the recent run on novels by Brian Selznick (around 600 pages each) and Rick Riordan (around 500 pages each). I don’t hear the kids complaining. One might even suspect that they, like generations before them, find nothing to which to object when they are lost in a vast landscape of the imagination.

Whether the adults are reading their doorstoppers is another question. Certainly the critics take issue with what they consider excessive verbiage. Although Haruki Murakami’s latest, IQ84, weighs in at a whopping 944 pages, most reviews take time out from their general adulation to note the need for serious slashing of text. Likewise the late David Foster Wallace, whose particularly vernacular prose has come in for tut-tutting from those in the “omit needless words” camp, like Maud Newton’s recent New York Times excoriation of Wallace’s “mannered and limited” style, which has been “adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument.” Newton prefers “directness, which precludes neither nuance nor irony.”

No needless words there. But I wonder—as the holidays, with their combined frenzy and down time, approach—if directness and verbal economy are as universally desired as we assume them to be. Thus far I have been talking about fiction, where masterpieces are often far longer than the word-count of 80,000-100,000 recommended to novice writers. Moby-Dick clocks in at 214,000 words, Crime and Punishment at 203,000, the delectable Clarissa at 969,000. (An aside: The rules for women are different. Pride & Prejudice has 122,000 words. Last time I was fretting about the need to edit a novel draft, a plucky male feminist advised me to make it even longer because “women should write big books.”) But even in informational writing, the notion that readers seek economy and have no patience for verbal detail doesn’t always hold water. The average Wikipedia entry is 590 words. The average Encyclopedia Americana entry from two decades ago is 556 words.

Even as we multitask and tweet, then, it seems we retain a conflicted love for the verbal surfeit, a love that younger people feel unadulterated. As we enter the holidays, the break between semesters, the time to reflect and the time to tweak syllabi, I have two suggestions for those who secretly want that extra dollop of whipped cream—or that extra satiric riff, or character description, or McGuffin in the plot—with their slice of book reading.

First, go ahead. Burrow into Dostoevsky, or Murakami, or Bolaño. Or if you were one of the unfortunate who were assigned only the juicy excerpts, dive right into The Critique of Pure Reason, with Kant’s intricate cognitive architecture. Let the snow pile up on the sidewalk while you wend your way through thick drifts of needless words. Let them do a little tap dancing, a little hedging; it’s the holidays.

Second, give your students something to sink their teeth into next term. Yes, their vocabulary may not be what student vocabulary was in 1955. Yes, they may check out SparkNotes. But they might also find the material irresistible and want more, more, more. After all, they all read all seven volumes of Harry Potter. And that 14-year-old finished Infinite Jest, every word of it.

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