Friday, November 29, 2019

More Is More

It doesn’t take a literary specialist to note that modern writing is more condensed, more pithy, more leaning to the soundbyte than the long, flowery sentence. Sometimes this feels like a decline, a capitulation to our shortening media-tranced attention span and inability to hold a long thought in our mind. Othertimes, especially in the hands of artful writers, it feels like a haiku kind of condensation of the “less is more” variety. In short, the number of words alone are not so important as how they are constructed and what they have to say. But certainly modern writing teachers will steer their students toward the shorter sentences and modern readers will mostly be impatient with overly-long sentences. 

I was worried when I resumed my Fall Dickens that my own tolerance for lengthy phrases would be diminished, but mostly, it has been a great pleasure to re-enter his genius for both plot and poetic writing, for character and conversation. But I did have to smile reading this one—I repeat, one, sentence last night. Check it out!

But now, when he thought how regularly things went on from day to day in the same unvarying round—how youth and beauty died, and ugly griping age lived tottering on—how crafty avarice grew rich, and manly honest hearts were poor and sad—how few they were who tenanted the stately houses, and how many those who lay in noisome pens, or rose each day and laid them down at night, and lived and died, father and son, mother and child, race upon race, and generation upon generation, without a home to shelter them or the energies of one single man directed to their aid—how in seeking, not a luxurious and splendid life, but the bare means of a most wretched and inadequate subsistence, there were women and children in that one town, divided into classes, numbered and estimated as regularly as the noble families and folks of great degree, and reared from infancy to drive most criminal and dreadful trades—how ignorance was punished and never taught—how jail-door gaped and gallows loomed for thousands urged towards them by circumstances darkly curtaining their very cradles’ heads, and but for which they might have earned their honest bread and lived in peace—how many died in soul, and had no chance of life—how many who could scarcely go astray, be they vicious as they would, turned haughtily from the crushed and stricken wretch who could scarce do otherwise, and who would have been a greater wonder had he or she done well, than even they, had they done ill—how much injustice, and misery, and wrong there was and yet how the world rolled on from year to year, alike careless and indifferent, and no man seeking to remedy or redress it;—when he thought of all this, and selected from the mass the one slight case on which his thoughts were bent, he felt indeed that there was little ground for hope, and little cause or reason why it should not form an atom in the huge aggregate of distress and sorrow, and add on small and unimportant unit to swell the great amount. (p. 791)

1 sentence. 23 lines. 358 words. 28 commas. 10 hyphens. 1 semi-colon. 

But note the content—concern for social justice, timeless meditations on the world’s ways, rich descriptive adjectives (ugly griping age/ crafty avarice), poetic alliteration ( honest hearts/ gaped and gallows/ remedy or redress)and imagery (an atom in the huge aggregate of distress and sorrow). It’s a mouthful, but worth the effort. Next time you’re in such a hurry that you’re texting things like “Lol. Tx!,” think about Mr. Dickens.

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