Consider this thought experiment: what if you were only allowed 2000 words with which to understand the world?
With these 2000 words, you’d have to do everything. You’d be allowed to occasionally retire some words in favor of others, or invent new words, but you’d have to stick to the budget.
Everything would have to be expressible within the budget: everyday conversations and deep conversations, shallow thoughts and profound ones, reflections and expectations, scientific propositions and vocational instruction manuals, poetry and stories, emotions and facts.
How would you use your budget? Would you choose more nouns or verbs? How many friends would you elevate to a name-remembered status? How many stars and bird species would you name? Would you have more concrete words or more reified ones in your selection? How many of the most commonly used words would you select? Counting mathematical symbols as words, how many of those would you select? Would you mimic others’ selections or make up your own mind?
When I read old texts, I am struck by the density of the writing. Words used to be expensive. You had to make one word do many things.
That last sentence contains a simple example. I originally had convey many meanings in place of do many things. For some readers, the substitution will make no difference. To others, it will make a great deal of difference.
We talk of dense texts as being layered. They lend themselves to re-reading from many perspectives over a long period of time. Even as late as the nineteenth century, we find that the average professional writer wrote with a density that rivals the densest writing today. With the exception of scientific writing — best understood as a social-industrial process for increasing the density of words — every other kind of writing today has become less layered. Most writing admits one reading, if that.
Dense writing is not particularly difficult. Merely time-consuming. As the word layering suggests, it is something of a mechanical craft, and you become better with practice. Even mediocre writers in the past, working with starter material no denser than today’s typical Top 10 blog post, could sometimes achieve sublime results by putting in the time.
If the mediocre can become good by pursuing density, the good can become great. Robert Louis Stevenson famously wrote gripping action sequences without using adverbs and adjectives. His prose has a sparse elegance to it, but is nevertheless dense with meaning and drama. I once tried the exercise of avoiding adverbs and adjectives. I discovered that it is not about elimination. The main challenge is to make your nouns and verbs do more work.
In teaching and learning writing today, we focus on the isolated virtue of brevity. We do not think about density. Traditions of exegesis — the dilution, usually oral, of dense texts to the point where they are consumable by many — are confined to dead rather than living texts.
We have forgotten how to teach density. In fact, we’ve even forgotten how to think about it. We confuse density with overwrought, baroque textures, with a hard-to-handle literary style that can easily turn into tasteless excess in unskilled hands.
The 2000-word thought experiment, if you try it, will likely force you to consider density of meaning as a selection factor. Some words, like schadenfreude, are intrinsically dense. Others, like love, are dense because they are highly adaptable. Depending on context, they can do many things.
Density is a more fundamental variable than the length of a text. It is intrinsic to writing, like the density of a fluid; what is known in fluid dynamics as an intensive property. The length of an arbitrarily delineated piece of text on the other hand, is an extensive property, like the volume of a specified container of fluid.
Choosing words precisely and crafting dense sentences is important. Choosing small containers is not.
Writing used to be a form of making. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have to carve your thoughts onto stone tablets. One of these days I am going to try carving the first draft of a post in stone.
Writing on paper is also an expensive luxury. There was a time when writers made their own paper and ink. You had to write with temperamental things like quills. The practice of calligraphy was not a writerly affectation. It was a necessary skill in the days of temperamental media.
The scribe was more of an archivist than a writer. The other ancestor of the writer, the bard-sage, was both composer and performer. The average person did not read, but relied on the bard or priest to expand upon and perform the written, archived word. Particularly good performances would lead to revisions of the written texts.
When fountain pens and cheap factory-made paper made their appearance, writers were able to waste paper, and as a consequence, written words. In the history of thought, the invention of the ability to waste words was probably as important as the invention of the ability — famously noted by Alan Kay — to waste bits in the history of programming.
With cheap paper was born that iconic image of the twentieth century writer — a writer sitting alone in a room, crumpling up a piece of writing in frustration, and tossing it into an overflowing waste-paper basket. Unlike the sage-bard, enacting old texts and beta-testing new ones through public oral performances, or the scribe, committing tested, quality-controlled and expensive texts to stone, the modern, pre-Internet writer was a resource-rich creature of profligate excess.
The very idea of a “waste paper” basket would have been unthinkable at one time.
It is difficult today to get a sense of how expensive writing used to be. I once watched a traditional temple scribe demonstrate the process of making the palm-leaf manuscripts that were used in India until Islam brought paper-making to the subcontinent. That probably happened a few centuries after the Abbasids defeated the Tang empire at the Battle of Talas in 751 AD, and extracted the secret of paper-making from Chinese prisoners of war.
Palm leaves are easily the worst writing technology ever invented by a major culture. They make leather, papyrus, paper and silk look like space-age media by comparison. A good deal that seems strange about India as an idea suddenly makes sense once you get that the civilization was being enacted through this ridiculous medium (and equally ridiculous ones like tree bark) until about 1000 AD. Imagine a modern civilization that had to keep its grand narrative going using only tweets, and you get some sense of what was going on.
Here’s how you make palm-leaf manuscripts. First you cut little index-card sized rectangles out of palm fronds and dry them flat. Then you carefully use a needle to scratch out the text — typically a few lines per leaf. Then you make an ink out of ground charcoal, carefully rub it into the scratches, and swab away the excess. Finally, you carefully pierce a hole through the middle (not the edge, since the thing is brittle) and thread a piece of string through a sheaf of loosely-related leaves.
Congratulations, you have a book.
Since the sheaf is more unstable than individual leaves, you have to plan for graceful degradation. Expect individual leaves to be lost or damaged. Expect accidental shuffling and page numbering turning to garbage. Expect new leaves to be inserted, like viruses. Don’t expect multi-leaf stories to remain stable. Expect narrative trunks to sprout branches added by later authors.
The palm leaf manuscript was brittle and easily damaged, available in one unhelpful size, with a lifespan of perhaps a few decades on average (carefully preserved ones lasted around 150 years I believe). After that you had to make a copy if you wanted to keep the ideas alive. If you were rich or powerful, you could get stuff carved onto stone or copper plates by slaves. If not, your best bet was to go with palm leaves and hope that people would descend on your home to make copies.
When you look at old writing technology, poetry suddenly makes sense.
It is modular content that comes in fixed-length chunks, with redundancy and error-correcting codes built in. It is designed to be transmitted and copied across time and space through unreliable and noisy channels, one stone tablet, palm leaf or piece of handmade paper at a time. The technology was still unreliable enough that the oral tradition remained the primary channel. Writing began as a medium for backups. Scribes were the first data warehousing experts. They did more than merely transcribe the spoken word. They compressed, corrected and encrypted as well, and periodically updated texts to reflect the extant state of the oral tradition.
That is why verses are so eminently quotable outside the context of poems. Poems are extensive oral containers of arbitrary length, in some cases delineated after the fact. Verses are standardized containers designed to carry intense, dense, archival-quality words around.
Today we view traditional verse epics as single works. The Illiad has about 9000 verses. The Mahabharata has about 24,000. It makes far more sense to talk about both as data-warehoused records of extremely long — in both time and words — convergent conversations. They are closer to Google’s index than to books.
For the ancients, texts had to be little metered packets. But as paper technology got cheaper and more reliable, poetry, like many other obsolete technologies before and after, turned into an art form. Critical function turned into dispensable style. Meter and rhyme ceased to be useful as error-correcting coding mechanisms and turned into free dimensions for artistic expression.
Soon, individual verses could be composed under the assumption of stable, longer embedding contexts. Extensive works could be delineated a priori, during the composition of the parts. And the parts could be safely de-containerized. Rhyming verse could be abandoned in favor of blank verse, and eventually meter became entirely unnecessary. And we ended up with the bound book of prose.
Technologically, it was something of a backward step, like reverting to circuit-switched networks after having invented packet switching, or moving back from digital to analog technology. But it served an important purpose: allowing the individual writer to emerge. The book could belong to an individual author in a way a verse from an oral tradition could not.
Poetry gets it right: length is irrelevant. You can standardize and normalize it away using appropriate containerization. It is density that matters. Evolving your packet size and vocabulary over time helps you increase density over time.
My posts range between 2000-5000 words, and I post about once a week here on ribbonfarm. But there are many bloggers who post two or three 300-word posts a day, five days a week. They also log 2000-5000 words.
So I am not particularly prolific. I merely have a different packet size compared to other bloggers, optimized for a peculiar purpose: evolving an idiosyncratic vocabulary. It seems to take several thousand words to characterize a neologism like gollumize or posturetalk. But once that is done, I can reuse it as a compact and dense piece of refactored perception.
You could say that what I am really trying to do on this blog is compose a speculative dictionary of dense words and phrases. Perhaps one day this blog will collapse under its own gravity into a single super-dense post written entirely with 2000 hyperlinked neologisms, like a neutron star.
Poetry — functional ancient poetry, the cultural TCP/IP of the world before around 1000 AD — is necessarily a social process, involving, at the very least, a sage-bard, a scribe, an audience and a patron. The oral culture refines, distills, tests, reworks, debates and judges. Iterative performance is a necessary component. When oral exegesis of an unstable verse dies down, and memorization and repetition validate the quality of the finished verse, the scribe breaks out his chisel.
The prose book can stand apart from broader social processes in radically individual ways. It can travel from writer to readers largely unaltered, setting up a hub-spoke pattern of conversational circuits.
I’ve occasionally described my blogging as a sort of performance art. But something about that self-description has been bothering me. I have now concluded that if the description applies at all, it applies to a different kind of blogger, not me.
The Web obscures the crucial and necessary distinction between oral and written cultures. Some bloggers perform and talk. Others are scribes. I think I am a scribe, not a performer.
Yet, there is no easy correspondence between pre-Gutenberg bard-sages and scribes and today’s bloggers. In the intervening centuries, we have seen the rise and fall of the individualist writer, working alone, filling waste-paper baskets.
History does not rewind. It synthesizes. The blogosphere, I am convinced, synthesizes the collectivist pre-Gutenberg culture of sage-bard and scribes with the individualist post-Gutenberg culture of paper-crumpling waste-paper-basket fillers.
In the process of synthesis, virtual circuits must ride once more on top of a revitalized packet-switched network. The oral/written distinction must be replaced by a more basic one that is medium-agnostic, like the Internet itself.
According to legend, the sage Vyasa needed a scribe to write down the Mahabharata as he composed it. Ganesha accepted the challenge, but demanded that the sage compose as fast as he could write. Wary of the trickster god, Vyasa in turn set his own condition: Ganesha would have to understand every verse before writing it down. And so, the legend continues, they began, with Vyasa throwing curveball verses at Ganesha whenever he needed a break.
The figure of Vyasa the composer is best understood as a literary device to represent a personified oral tradition (that perhaps included a single real Vyasa or family of Vyasas).
But the legend gets at something interesting about the role of a scribe in a dominantly oral culture. A second-class citizen like a minute-taker or official record-keeper, the scribe must nevertheless synthesize and interpret an ongoing cacophony in order to produce something coherent to write down. When the spoken word is cheap and the written word is expensive, the scribe must add value. The oral tradition may be the default, but the written one is the court of final appeal in case of conflict among two authoritative individuals.
There is a brilliant passage in Yes, Prime Minister, where the Cabinet Secretary Humphery Appleby helps the Prime Minister, Jim Hacker, cook the minutes of a cabinet meeting after the fact, to escape from an informal oral commitment. Appleby’s exposition of the principle of accepting the minutes as the de facto official memory gets to the heart of the Vyasa-Ganesha legend:
Sir Humphrey: “It is characteristic of all committee discussions and decisions that every member has a vivid recollection of them and that every member’s recollection of them differs violently from every other member’s recollection. Consequently, we accept the convention that the official decisions are those and only those which have been officially recorded in the minutes by the Officials, from which it emerges with an elegant inevitability that any decision which has been officially reached will have been officially recorded in the minutes by the Officials and any decision which is not recorded in the minutes is not been officially reached even if one or more members believe they can recollect it, so in this particular case, if the decision had been officially reached it would have been officially recorded in the minutes by the Officials. And it isn’t so it wasn’t.”
The key point here is that the scribe must do more than merely transcribe. He must interpret and synthesize. I suspect the Vyasa-Ganesha legend was invented by the first scribe paid to write down the hitherto-oral Mahabharata, to legitimize his own interpretative authority in capturing something coherent from a many-voiced tradition, with each voice claiming the authority of a mythical Vyasa.
So if the modern blogosphere is neither the collectivist, negotiated recording of a Grand Narrative, arrived at via a conversation between scribes and sage-bards, nor the culture of purely individual expression that reigned between Gutenberg and Tim Berners-Lee, what is it?
For blogging to be performance art, the performer must live an interesting life and do interesting things. For a while I thought I qualified, but then I reflected and was forced to admit that my dull daily routine does not qualify as raw material for performance art.
How about this: instead of a half-coherent oral tradition or the relatively coordinated doings of the British Cabinet, the blogosphere is primarily an uncoordinated theater of large-scale individual gonzo blogging. As culture is increasingly enacted by this theater of decentered gonzo blogging instead of traditions that enjoy received authority, minute-taking scribe bloggers must increasingly interpret what they are seeing.
The first human scribe who wore the mask of Ganesha could reasonably assume that there was a coherent trunk narrative with discriminating judgments required only at the periphery. He would only be responsible for smoothing out the rough edges of an evolving oral consensus. Equally Humphrey Appleby could hope for a coherent emergent intentionality in the deliberations of the cabinet.
But the scribe-blogger cannot assume that there is anything coherent to be discovered in the gonzo blogging theater. At best he can attempt to collect and compress and hope that it does not all cancel out.
There is another difference. When words are literally expensive, as words carved in stone are, anything written has de facto authority, underwritten by the wealth that paid for the scribe. Scribes were usually establishment figures associated with courts, temples or monasteries, deriving their interpretative authority from more fundamental kinds of authority based on violence or wealth.
With derived authority comes supervision. The compensation for lost derived authority is the withdrawal of supervision. The scribe-blogger is an unsupervised and unauthorized chronicler in a world of contending gonzos. Any authority he or she achieves is a function of the density and coherence of the interpretative perspective it offers on the gonzo-blogging theater.
I wish I could teach dense blogging. I am not sure how I am gradually acquiring this skill, but I am convinced it is not a difficult one to pick up. It requires no particular talent beyond a generic talent for writing and thinking clearly. It is merely time-consuming and somewhat tedious.
Sometimes I strive for higher density consciously, and at other times, dense prose flows out naturally after a gonzo-blogger memeplex has simmered for a while in my head. I rarely let non-dense writing out the door. You need gonzo-blogging credibility to successfully do Top 10 list posts. I can manufacture branded ideas, but lack the raw material needed to sustain a personal brand.
Writing teachers with a doctrinaire belief in brevity urge students to focus. They encourage selection and elimination in the service of explicit intentions. The result is highly legible writing. Every word serves a singular function. Every paragraph contains one idea. Every piece of prose follows one sequence of thoughts. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. Like a city laid out by a High-Modernist architect, the result is anemic. The text takes a single prototypical reader to a predictable conclusion. In theory. More often, it loses the reader immediately, since no real reader is anything like the prototypical one assumed by (say) the writer of a press release.
An insistence on focus turns writing into a vocational trade rather than a liberal art.
Both gonzo blogging and scribe blogging lead you away from the writing teacher.
Striving for density, attempting to compress more into the same number of words, inevitably leads you away from the legibility prized by writing teachers. Ambiguity, suggestion and allusion become paramount. Coded references become necessary, to avoid burdening all readers with selection and filtration problems. Like Humpty-Dumpty, you are sometimes forced to enslave words and chain them to meanings that they were not born with.
Dense writing creates illegible slums of meaning. To the vocational writer, it looks discursive, messy and randomly exploratory.
But what the vocational writer mistakes for a lack of clear intention is actually a multiplicity of intentions, both conscious and unconscious.
Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, remarked that beginning novelists obsess about voice, the question of who is speaking. She goes on to remark that the more important question is who is listening?
The failure to ask who is listening is peculiar to pre-Internet book writers. You cannot possibly fail that way as a blogger.
The modern extensive-prose, word-wasteful book represents the apogee of a certain kind of individualism. An individualism that writes itself into existence through self-expression unmodulated by in-process feedback, something only entire cultures could afford to do in the age of stone-carved words. For this kind of writer, the reader was a distant abstraction, easily forgotten.
A muse was an optional aid to the process rather than a necessary piece of cognitive equipment. At most modern, pre-blogging book writers wrote for a single archetypal reader.
For the blogger, a multiplicity of readerly intentions is a given. At the very least, you must constantly balance the needs of the new reader against the needs of the long-time reader. Every frequent commenter or email/IM correspondent becomes an unavoidable muse. This post for instance, was triggered by a particularly demanding muse who accused me, over IM, of having gotten lazy over the last few posts and neglecting this blog in favor of my more commercial, less-dense writing.
She was right. Mea culpa. Having to pay the rent is not a valid excuse for failing to rise to the challenge of a tricky balancing act.
Density is the natural consequence of trying to say many things to many distinct people over long periods of time without repeating yourself too much or sparking flame wars. The long-time reader gets impatient with repetition and demands compaction of old ideas into a shorthand that can be built upon. The newcomer demands a courteous, non-cryptic welcome. Active commenters demand a certain kind of room for their own expansion, elaboration and meaning construction.
The exegesis of living texts is not the respectful affair that it is around dead ones. If you blog, there will be blood.
In the days of 64k memories, programmers wrote code with as much care as ancient scribes carved out verses on precious pieces of rock, one expensive chisel-pounding rep at a time.
In the remarkably short space of 50 years, programming has evolved from rock-carving parsimony to paper-wasting profligacy.
Still living machine-coding gray eminences bemoan the verbosity and empty abstractions of the young. My one experience of writing raw machine code (some stepper-motor code, keyed directly into a controller board, for a mechatronics class) was enlightening, but immediately convinced me to run away as fast as I could.
But why shouldn’t you waste bits or paper when you can, in service of clarity and accessibility? Why layer meaning upon meaning until you get to near-impenetrable opacity?
I think it is because the process of compression is actually the process of validation and comprehension. When you ask repeatedly, who is listening, every answer generates a new set of conflicts. The more you resolve those conflicts before hitting Publish, the denser the writing. If you judge the release density right, you will produce a very generative piece of text that catalyzes further exploration rather than ugly flame wars.
Sometimes, I judge correctly. Other times I release too early or too late. And of course, sometimes a quantity of gonzo-blogger theater compresses down to nothing and I have to throw away a draft.
And some days, I find myself staring at a set of dense thoughts that refuse to either cohere into a longer piece or dissolve into noise. So I packetize them into virtual palm-leaf index cards delimited by asterixes, and let them loose for other scribes to shuffle through and perhaps sinter into a denser mass in a better furnace.
It is something of a lazy technique, ultimately no better than list-blogging in the gonzo blogosphere. But if it was good enough for Wittgenstein, it’s good enough for me.