Literature in Short

Microreviews and Other Brevities

(Day 33), by JspadI’ve just posted my latest microreviews in the sidebar, with last week’s efforts now resting in peace on the dedicated page. This week, purely by coincidence, I’ve focused mainly on shorter volumes. At 276 pages, Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans is the granddaddy of them all.

But it’s an interesting point that – good, bad or indifferent – shorter writing is just as capable of eliciting responses as thousand-page epics. Sometimes it can even do a little better.

To give an example from a brief survey of my shelves, Kurt Vonnegut’s final, autobiographical collect of essays, A Man Without A Country, speaks more to the complexities of life and the ethics of living in its 145 pages than does E.P. Thompson’s 958-page Making of the English Working Class, which covers much the same ground in historical context.

There are obvious exceptions to this generalisation. Andrew Motion’s sizable biography of Philip Larkin, for instance, will take you inside a fascinating life, moving slowly through bitterness grown and hope reformed many times over without once stepping in banalities. But my point is that brevity can have a powerful purpose.

Taken to the extreme, songs encapsulate what I’m trying to say. Reflecting on the life of a singer-songwriter recently, Kris Kristofferson pointed to the portability of lyrics – how they stay in our heads long after traces of more complex writing have leached away. Perhaps that’s testimony to their poetics and how they work as mnemonics. Kristofferson’s ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ is forever in my memory, linked in retrospect to my father in his darkest days before the joy of his final years.

I can see your point, from I Can Has CheezeburgerThe switch of genres here doesn’t really make a difference: it’s all about the value of observation and how a writer can express ideas that, upon reflection, should have seemed obvious to the reader, and perhaps the listener.

So finally I come to the book I’m reading now, featured in this week’s microreviews – Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I’ll write more about it soon because it, and the issues that surround it, cross and re-cross the boundaries between fact and fiction, between what matters little and what matters most.

For now, enjoy whatever you’re reading offline: in only a few pages flipped you could find interesting solutions to the many conundrums of this puzzling world.


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