Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Long and the Short of Description

Near the start of Saul Bellow's marvelous short story "Zetland: By a Character Witness," in the collection Him With His Foot In His Mouth and Other Stories,there is a brief description of the history of the universe; comically brief, really, but good for its length, impressive. It impressed me, anyway, and my Wrong Monkey Blog posts "History of the World[...]," Parts I, II, and III, (See below, in the posts from May) were partly inspired by it. I wanted to see how well I could do in a very brief and quickly-written summation of everything I knew. (I may get around to Part IV eventually, don't rush me.)

In my childhood and early adulthood I had some pretty firm opinions about how long the descriptions of certain things should be. I don't know where I got these opinions; in retrospect in seems very odd to me that I ever had them. Clearly, my views were not well thought out and consistent on this issue. Examples! Examples are called for here. I admired H.G. Wells' Outline of History, but I felt that it was only an introduction to world history and that the serious student should study his speciality in more detail. Most likely very few serious students of history would disagree with me on that point; but they might find it odd how I found it odd, for example, that there were so many multi-volume works, some on quite specialized topics, listed in the bibliography of John Richard Alden's 1-volume history of the American Revolution. Why dwell for several volumes on one individual involved in the Revolution -- even, perhaps, a relatively obscure individual? Or one a single battle in the war? One very obvious answer, among several good answers to those questions -- namely: to provide the material for an historian like Alden to competently compose a shorter one-volume summary -- somehow eluded me at the time. Let's just say that it's probably good that at as yet I had no ambitions as an historian myself.

What makes it doubly strange in retrospect is that at the time -- in my teens -- I had already read, and re-read, and enjoyed immensely, a book which had addressed this question in a very sensible way, so that my questions should have been answered, questions like: Why, and for that matter how, would anyone compose several thick volumes of biography of someone like Samuel Otis? (No offense to Samuel's memory: I was a young fool, and although no longer young I'm probably still pretty foolish in some important ways.) The book is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenanceby Robert Pirsig. The narrator recounts how he had been teaching a college class and gave his students the assignment of writing a 500=word essay on a topic of their choosing, and how one student had come to him in distress, unable to think of anything to write about, and how he told her to write about the brick building across the street from her window, starting with the upper-left-hand brick, and how she had gone away sceptical but come back amazed with herself, having written a 5,000-word essay. I have no idea how much of Pirsig's book is factual, how much fictional, whether all or any of the anecdote actual occurred, but factual or fictional, that anecdote should have cured me of my strange notions of the appropriate lengths of descriptions.

I've condensed the history of the world up until the Renaissance and Age of Discovery, in the Wrong Monket essays mentioned above, into a couple thousand words. I could easily write a much longer account than that of the room I'm sitting in. You don't believe me? Just to my left is a small paperback book by Phaidon entitled 10,000 Years of Art. On the front cover, the words "10,000 YEARS" are printed in dark green, and the words "OF ART" in black, all in capital letters, against a light-green background. Near the border of the front cover a narrow dark-green line almost makes a rectangle: almost, but not quite, because in the lower right-hand corner, it makes a couple of turns to go around the publisher's name, "PHAIDON." The title is all in a bold, cursive font, "PHAIDON" is not cursive, not bold and the font is much smaller.

That book is one of about thirty lying in stacks in the eight feet or so between me and the wall to my left, against which wall many more books are shelved. And I only described the fron cover of that one book; as you may have surmised from its title, it contained hundreds of pictures of masterpieces of art made by people all over the world over the course of the last 10,000 years, each one of which pictures could easily coax forth at least a few words. Do you believe me now?

You think that because I'm a bookworm I've given myself more to describe? Fine, we'll leave the books out of it: Just to the left of the keyboard on which I'm typing is a mug made of white ceramic, part of the outside of which has been painted: near the rim there's a narrow band of dark blue. Under that there's a broader band, about a half-inch band of a lighter shade of blue, in which you can see brushstrokes. It doesn't go all the way around the mug: there's a gap left white around the handle. This makes me think that the mug was hand-painted after the handle was put on, or that the mug is a mass-produced copy of one which was hand-painted.

I could go on for a while about the outside of the mug. Inside, there's about one finger of coffee left. It's cold by now light-colored. Ilike a lot of creamer in my coffee. Yeah, creamer, not actual cream or milk, it may be a little odd but that's how I like my coffee. Gonna toss that coffee off and get a refill. Mmm. Be right back.

Ahhhh. Thanks for waiting. I grind "gourmet" beans at Meijer's, and and brew them in a machine at home. I'm not sure how an actual gourmet would like this stuff, especially when it comes to the creamer, but I like it a lot more then Folger's instant, which I used to drink, and which I in turn liked a lot more than other brands of instant, although earlier still I didn't really notice the difference between any types of coffee and was manly interested in the caffeine.

I hope I've made my point about the expansion of or compression of description being something very much up to the individual writer.

I haven't?

Underneath the mug, serving as a coaster, is a piece of cardboard which came in the package containing One Flat Sheet which I bought at Target. On the bottom side of the cardboard there's some information about the sheet, on the top side I've jotted a few phone numbers, and there are some brown rings from the mug having been set on it a lot of mornings. If I haven't made my point yet, I probably won't. There's no lack of things to write about, there never has been. It's a matter of the writer observing, and transferring his observations to a written text, hopefully with some clarity and style.

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