Saturday, January 11, 2014

Word Count

Consider these items. The Senate Intelligence Committee report about the CIA interrogation program is over 6000 pages. A Federal judge issued a ruling on the NSA surveillance program that ran to 68 pages. On many lists of the best book for 2013 was Donna Tartt's third novel "The Goldfinch," which clocks in at 784 pages. All of which beg the question: who the hell is reading this stuff?

Not I, and I consider myself a reader (actually, I have read "The Goldfinch," but the central point still stands). Fiction, nonfiction, biography, newspapers, magazines, it doesn't matter. I'm not fast: I'll be the first to admit it often takes me longer than it should. Sometimes the topic or story is complex, and I have to retrace my steps so it all makes sense. Others times the book is written by a foreign author and/or about a distance place, and the names confuse me (Wait a minute: was that Ahmed's sister Aidah who was killed with Aaeedah's boyfriend Abd Al-Alaaa, or was it the other way around?) Other times it's as simple as I nod off and drop my Kindle on my face. But I keep at it, making up for lack of speed by volume.

And I can't say that everything I read is good. Sometimes the idea or angle is interesting, but the story or the writing is pedestrian at best. In that case I may just blow through it quickly, not caring that I track every nuance because basically I don't care. (So what if the zombies take over Kansas City; would anybody give a hoot?) But once I start something, I generally finish it, even if I have to come back for a second or even a third running start.

That's being said, I know I am in a relatively small fraternity. You can argue whether it's good or bad, but most people spend more time reading Facebook posts then then they do an actual book, be it electronic or print. And while relevance is often cited as a reason, so is length. That's hardly surprising in a world where the 140 character tweet has attained the status of a classic haiku.

For a while, it seemed we were heading the other way. Amazon, which was founded on the concept of selling books, grew hand over fist. There was an arms race between Borders and Barnes and Noble as they tried to outdo each other in opening 25,000 square-foot monuments to books of every stripe. And blogs and self-publishing lowered the entry bar to almost nil for authors to get their works out to their own specific publics, be they niche or adoring.

Fast forward, and Amazon now makes less than a third of its sales from "books, music and other media." Borders is no more. And blogs have faded, as Twitter has become the publishing media of choice to reach a crowd, be it to foment a revolution (the Arab Spring), announce a discovery ("We have ICE!!!!! Yes, WATER ICE on Mars! Woot!"), or criticize the government (a high school student in Kansas who met Governor Sam Brownbeck at a forum tweeted "told him he sucked," then defended herself by saying "I wouldn't apologize for the tweet itself because, like I said, that was aimed toward my audience.")

But still they go to press. While the publishing industry has suffered mightily, that hasn't stopped both traditional and non-traditional forms of the written word from expanding almost exponentially. Maybe it's because we don't have to read all that bad handwriting, but whether it's touch or thumb typed, the number of words being churned out seems to be multiplying like rabbits. Like bodies in a Quentin Tarantino movie, the word count goes up and up, be it government rulings on important issues, critical and snarky comments about restaurants and TV shows, or novels fun and fantastic.

And yes, the bloat extends to columns as well. And so I make you a promise if you stick around these parts. Like a bride eyeing her wedding day, I will hold my word count down lest I not fit into my dress. I may have to jettison a few metaphors, scrap a simile or two, perhaps pass on some literary sleight of hand. But here, in this space, we will hold the line or (sorry, out of space).


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to read. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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