To say a little

In the course of my own writing, and as a consequence of writing and editing for others, I’ve realised that:

To say a little one must know a lot.

Umberto Eco’s description of the ins and outs of a Benedictine monastery’s existence in the fourteenth century took up a relatively small part of the universe—a few hundred pages. But to get those pages pages required a disproportionate amount of toil and thought—seven years, in Eco’s own estimation.

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is epic, in the best sense of the word. Yet even on the micro, sentence level, the work required is astronomical. For example, there are scenes which take place on a variety of ships and boats, which seems simple enough. But to be real and concrete and effective, those scenes must be packed with understanding. It is not enough for Stephenson to know that his characters are on a boat. No, he must describe the boat to some degree, and to describe it, he must know what sea vessels were prominent and not prominent during that time. He must know who used them and for what purposes. He must grasp their aesthetics and the mechanics of their functions. All for a sentence or two.

Finally, an aphorist like La Rochefoucauld or a philosopher like Seneca the Younger can say, “The world rewards appearances of merit more often than merit itself.” and “…life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.” Succinct. Pithy. Insightful. But these sentiments do not just spring into minds of their utterers via the will of some Divine Power; they are the product of a lifetime of action and reflection.

Of course, it is possible to say a lot whilst knowing a little. But then the person speaking is not so much an author as a charlatan. Unless, however, the author is deliberately eschewing authority on a topic and inviting a reader to accompany him on his explorations, just as I invite you to join me as I think about these things.