The U.S. publisher Viking recently hit on a bright idea. Biographies, always reliable sellers, were nevertheless getting too long, they thought. Lives of even minor luminaries were routinely checking in at 800 or more pages, sometimes in multiple volumes; there was no such thing as an incident trivial or dull enough to be left out. Viking knew that this elephantine tendency went in cycles: The triple-decker door-stoppers popular in the 19th century were sandwiched between such masterpieces of compression as John Aubrey’s “Brief Lives” and Lytton Strachey’s lapidary “Eminent Victorians.” Gambling that the reading public was ready for “the eloquent economy” of the short form again, Viking therefore launched in January the first two volumes in its Penguin Lives series, none of which will exceed 150 pages or so. If Florence Nightingale could be captured on an “inch of ivory,” a la Strachey, why not Marcel Proust or Crazy Horse (the Penguin series’ openers) or the queen of the ivory inch, Jane Austen herself (promised for later this year)? Why not, indeed, anyone? The trick, as Strachey said in his preface to “Eminent Victorians,” is simply to avoid “scrupulous narration,” directing a searchlight instead into “unexpected places.”
Viking is evidently onto something, as the new series’ instant success attests — although it has been helped as well by its imaginative pairing of subjects and biographers. (It will be hard to resist the forthcoming life of St. Augustine by Mr. Garry Wills or of Mao Zedong by Mr. Jonathan Spence.) But the latest mandate to be brief is itself worth a moment’s reflection. It did not begin, after all, with Viking. Brevity is in the air. Short is definitely modish. Let us count the ways:
One-day cricket, which has arguably ousted the turtle-paced five-day match as the sport’s most popular form.
Match-play golf: Last month’s debacle in California did not help the concept take hold, but it is a sign of the times that it has appeared at all.
E-mail, which has not only made the one-line letter acceptable but pretty much put paid to a whole literary genre: the always voluminous “Collected Letters of …” (this looming loss alone is enough to give one pause).
Attention spans, children’s and otherwise: The electronic age, driven by sound bites, mouse clicks and the ability to “multi-task,” has shattered our ability to concentrate, say some behavioral scientists.
Travel time: so fast now it’s almost become time travel.
The standard English sentence: It’s not just newspapers anymore. Teachers and book editors are virtually programmed to split, shorten and tighten what any 19th-century stylist, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, would have considered a decent, well-rounded period. Think how far we have come in our expectations of public rhetoric since Thomas Jefferson’s second inaugural address of 1805. “Proceeding, fellow citizens,” Jefferson began, “to that qualification which the constitution requires, before my entrance on the charge again conferred upon me, it is my duty to express the deep sense I entertain of this new proof of confidence from my fellow citizens at large, and the zeal with which it inspires me, so to conduct myself as may best satisfy their just expectations.” President William Jefferson Clinton, by contrast, did not dare begin his second inaugural speech in 1997 with anything wordier than this: “My fellow citizens, at this last presidential inauguration of the 20th century, let us lift our eyes toward the challenges that await us in the next century.” Those convinced that shorter is always sweeter may even prefer Mr. Clinton’s pithy fuzz to Jefferson’s fuzzy pith, but the point is not to judge, merely to register, the change. The same difference emerges if we compare a typical sentence by, say, Thomas Hardy with one by Ernest Hemingway, the man who must be held to some degree responsible for this whole modern habit of terseness.
So, brevity is in and Viking is smart to catch the wave. Don’t be fooled, though, into thinking it a simple phenomenon. Sentences may be shorter, but the forms they compose — the novels (Mr. Thomas Pynchon’s, Mr. Martin Amis’), speeches (Mr. Clinton’s) and ceremonies (the Oscars) — are as long as ever. E-mails may be snappier, but they pile up like mountains. Interest in the news diminishes even as media and pundits proliferate. As our mental world splinters into a swirl of ever smaller fragments, less has a funny way of seeming more: more of everything, except, perhaps, coherence. From this perspective, even Viking’s brilliant, tiny biographies are just a heap of unstrung gems.
We could go on, but this editorial is already much too long.
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