There is a vein of thought, peculiar to the modern mind, that rebels against the tendency within classic literature to often employ a large volume of words. More precisely, it protests an engagement with what it supposes to be archaic works of literature – those which, aside from other identifying characteristics, are particularly guilty of the crime of wordiness. What could have been stated in a few simple lines is stretched to span whole paragraphs, or even pages. Why squander precious time wading through this swamp of wasted ink?
It is certainly easy to empathize with this camp, especially the young readers assigned the task of tackling the likes of Austen, Dickens, Hugo or Dostoevsky. Upon reading the opening lines of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Fall of the House of Usher, one cannot help but wonder along with these tormented youths why a simpler course was not taken. Rather than a dense and lengthy paragraph (400 words in total) detailing his ominous advance towards the house – and the foreboding effect it mysteriously had upon him – perhaps he should have said something along the lines of: “As I approached the House of Usher, it gave me the creeps.” Of course, Poe shuns such pedestrian simplicity. He relies heavily on sophisticated phrases such as: “an unredeemed dreariness of thought”, “the hideous dropping of the veil” and “the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre.”
In truth, the effects of this lengthy arrangement of words upon an attentive reader are powerful and completely worthwhile. Those who approach the tale with eagerness will find themselves simultaneously overtaken by the same sense of dread which Poe is lacing into his own character’s thoughts and emotions. In similar fashion, Charles Dickens employs brilliant imagery in his novel Hard Times to convey a strong animosity one of his characters harbors for another. Naturally, this is accomplished in a roundabout manner. Rather than a straightforward “Mrs. Sparsit despised Louisa and longed for her demise”, he informs the reader that Mrs. Sparsit had “erected in her mind a mighty Staircase, with a dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom; and down those stairs, from day to day and hour to hour, she saw Louisa coming.”
It is essential to identify the two impulses in this conversation that are at war: that of the poet, and that of the mathematician. On one side, behind almost all complaints against wordiness, there is a mathematical exactitude at work which demands the reduction of ideas into their most rigid and efficient allotment of words. Any deviation from this path is perceived as supremely wasteful. The easiest transaction for the reader – of time invested with information gained – is elevated as the supreme goal. Meanwhile, the poetic disposition ambles along, reveling in the sea of ideas and passions – often blissfully naive of any word count. No unnecessary constraints are impinged upon the trajectory of a book, essay, or short story; the free exchange of ideas that has animated literature since its inception is recognized for the inherent good that it is. Seen from this view, the corridors of classic literature have for centuries been a playground for some of the greatest creative minds, both readers as well as authors. Within these corridors are found some of the most profound truths regarding the human condition.
Granted, all great writers have recognized the importance of self-restraint to an appropriate degree. Their words are selected with a painstaking care, each one chosen for a specific function so as to properly capture the essence of their ideas. In its proper place then, the impulse to regulate serves as a tool which aids in crafting refined literature, rather than a law which governs its final destination. This tension between efficiency and expression carries us to the pivotal realization here: imagination – the fuel of all great literature – cannot be mathematically quantified, compressed into units, or regulated by an equation. All attempts to subdue this powerful force of the human spirit with overbearing rules and strict patterns will either be disastrous, or else produce something altogether undesirable. If we are to unearth the vast store of treasures awaiting us in these timeless pages, we would do well to remember this.
It is indeed true that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. All who would traverse this path of efficiency will undoubtedly arrive at their destination sooner; however, they will also be deprived of the spectacular twists and turns that our literary predecessors have left for our enrichment.