Reading Between The Lines

Eight hundred words is not a lot of space. Time for approximately two anecdotes, six supporting paragraphs, several analogies and one ironic self-reflection before one poignant but foreseeable conclusion.

I remember the first 800-word essay I wrote. It was my fourth grade pet report, which I chose to do about horses. An avid horse lover, I came into this project fresh from two years of scouring the school library, the public library and any bookstores within walking distance for every tidbit of equine knowledge available in print. The 800-word limit seemed hugely unreasonable--I had so much to explain. How could a subject which occupied my entire bookshelf at home be reduced to four double-space pages of loosely cursive script?

As I got older, the hegemony of 800 only grew. In-class tests, response papers, applications, SAT II's and even some college essays all subscribe to this one magic limit. Like a photograph, 800 words can be incredibly glossy, misleading, and yet say a great deal--4/5 as much as a photograph, to be precise."


Somewhere in the high school years I began to appreciate the elegance of the short form. Perhaps all arguments are not meant to be flushed out in excruciating detail. Perhaps, like the parting shot delivered to one's ex just before the door slams, they could be short, timely and pack a punch.

But the growth of short forms has not, in my observation, been balanced out by a comparable growth in long forms. Instead of subjects shifting nicely into levels of depth--here's the soundbite answer, here's a longer answer, here's the encyclopedia version--only the soundbite survives in circulation. It seems that our tolerance for information of all kinds has shrunk dramatically, demanding constant refresh and rarely holding still for the previously reductive 800-word form. (Have you really read this far in the column without skipping ahead or skimming?)

This loss of detail--the loss of the long form--takes with it our impetus towards consistency. After enough sections and response papers we can all be opinionated, or at least appropriately melodramatic, for 800 words or 55 minutes, whichever comes first. But is their continuity between these spurts of eloquence? Does a clear voice emerge and transcend? Or is everything reduced to a comic strip box--a snapshot with the most interesting pieces of life squished into the inked borders?

The idea that selective shots of our lives are representative isn't new. It's the basis for comic books, episodic TV shows and the classic celluloid biography. Highlight a couple of key points and get to the punchline, and the rest--the actions that make our words human-- follow nicely behind.

This idea is implicit in recent computer privacy software." A company on Amazon this month advertises an application that stays hidden and resident on your computer and, invisibly to the user, then takes and saves randomly spaced screenshots. You can go back later and view the screenshots to ensure that your children weren't scooping out the Swedish Bikini Team or your spouse wasn't engaging in electronic infidelity. It's all there for you in full-color comic-book form.

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