Thursday, April 28, 2016

`Equal Wasters of Human Life'

“We grow tired of seeing our experience choked by the vegetation in our sentences. We opt for the pithy, the personal, and the unapologetic. For years we have had a crowd of random thoughts waiting on our doorstep, orphans or foundlings of the mind that we have not adopted: the moment of the aphorism, the epigram, the clinching quotation has come.”

No, it’s not lifted from the manifesto of a blogger (few bloggers write so well), though its author was certainly a master of short forms, in fiction and essays. This is V.S. Pritchett writing in 1979 about his old friend Gerald Brenan on the publication of the latter’s commonplace book Thoughts in a Dry Season. Pritchett relates a taste for brevity to age, not because of short-windedness but from impatience with verbosity. Time is short. No need to blather. Pritchett turned seventy-nine the year his review was published; Brenan, eighty-five. The commonplace notion is that old people are the genuine gas bags, ever saying nothing at great length. That has only occasionally been my experience. Rather, youth inclines toward motor-mouthed wordiness, which may explain the vogue for Kerouac and Bukowski among certain young readers. They mistake bulk for worth. In The Idler #85, Dr. Johnson writes:

“But such is the present state of our literature, that the ancient sage, who thought a great book a great evil, would now think the multitude of books a multitude of evils. He would consider a bulky writer who engrossed a year, and a swarm of pamphleteers who stole each an hour, as equal wasters of human life, and would make no other difference between them, than between a beast of prey and a flight of locusts.”

The “ancient sage” is Callimachus, composer of epigrams.     

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