Complex ideas in small packages

I read Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery recently. It’s an account of a man whose life becomes the centre of a shadowy, incoherent campaign to slander the entire Jewish people in the 19th century. As his writings cast slur upon slur on the Jews, his own sense of identity becomes broken. The story is told within the broad sweep of European history, but the story is written as the memoirs of this man, who may not be a reliable witness to events either historical or personal. The hardback edition of the novel that I have is 400-odd pages.

I mention the length because at work we are embarking (still embarking, I would say, after several months of embarkment) on a new venture to produce in-depth/long-form* explanatory/exploratory* stories/feature articles* about science and medicine. Inevitably, when thinking about how to tell such stories, we encounter a tension between explaining some quite niche area of science and keeping the narrative flowing. My initial reaction tends to be to push at the limits of our allotted word-counts but I’ve started thinking that there may be a better way.

Eco is a writer I like, although I have probably read fewer of his books than I think I have. But he is the type of writer I like, and that’s often good enough. Another writer that I have long known I like – despite not having read much of his work either – is Jorge Luis Borges. And recently, I have been reading his fictions: short stories that usually centre around a labyrinth of some description (if centring around a labyrinth is morphologically possible).

So here’s the thing: I think Borges could have written in 8 pages a story that had the same narrative, concepts, characters and plot as Eco’s 400-page novel. And I think Borges’s story would have had all the complexity of Eco’s work. Borges had the skill to present you with a character and a situation in a few words; then he would have been able to sum up Eco’s character’s life with a couple of paragraphs. The overall impression would probably not have been so different to the effect of reading Eco’s novel, but it would have happened in a fraction of my time. Read the rest of this entry »