Against Brevity

“Brevity is the Soul of Wit”

William Shakespeare

My whole life, I’ve been told I need to be more pithy.

I was always the kid who sent texts that were full, lengthy paragraphs, with careful spelling and grammar. My emails and messages were always long, expressive, emotional, and precise. I hated abbreviations and the constant push to “say it quicker”.

But our society is addicted to speed, to brevity, to the tweet, to the picture that’s worth a thousand words. And in this process, our society becomes ever dumber, angrier, more prone to stupid misunderstandings over semantics, and more apt to “cancel” and destroy people over a misunderstood half-quote taken out of context.

This world was not built by or for careful thinkers and speakers, those who love big ideas writ large and beautiful words beautifully spoken. And I cannot help but suspect that the results are painfully clear as whole countries descend into the madness of crowds, choosing clown princes to rule them as the world burns (literally and figuratively).

In theory, there is a value to arresting other minds with important truths pithily expressed. Truly, there is a time and a place for everything, and we must always be on the lookout for the dangers of loving our own voices too much, of being long-winded without cause and alienating people who need to hear or learn some important truth.

But I’ve always been an Ent. Like Tolkien’s Tree-Folk, it always felt so very important to take the shape, feeling, and intricate intimacy of complex thoughts and feelings and communicate them with precision; anything less felt cheap, as if it disgraced and dishonored the divine worth of the thing itself.

I guess it all boils down to the age-old problem of information science – compression and encryption. Yes, you can compress complex information by a factor of a thousand (or a million), but only if the other parties have the precise decompression algorithm to exactly translate this “shorthand” into your full message, or image, or song, or video. The same problem happens with encryption when parties don’t have the correct “encryption key”.

The same happens with philosophy, with spirituality, with art, with feelings, and so many other human experiences. If you try to use “shorthand” and symbols to say a lot with a little, well, there is a high risk that many people in the audience will not have the same “encryption key” or symbolic referents to understand what you are trying to say.

Thus we have thousands of religions and philosophies that become profoundly twisted from their original meanings. Ancient science is misinterpreted as magic or religion, and ancient mystics and gurus who preached love and wisdom are made into icons of hatred, ignorance, and violence.

Again and again, I am brought to the conclusion that my childhood instinct was neither ugly nor useless, and I rebel against the constant refrain of teachers, mentors, professors, bosses, style manuals, and society itself. Just as there is a place for brevity, so too there is a place for long, careful discussion and thought; a “God-shaped hole” (Pascal) not for a deity but for intense thinking and communication.

I believe this is why we are living in the golden era of podcasts. People are hungry for challenging, long-form thought and creative conversation. The ancient format of the dialogues, once the purview of dusty philosophers, has come back with a vengeance; I am curious if the classic form of the long essay, faltering though it may be in the age of social media, might not come back in the same way, stoked from the ashes where it was preserved by the occasional (and sometimes obscure) David Foster Wallace, Christopher Hitchens, Matt Taibbi, or other rare longform thinker.

When the world finds balance and harmony, it will heal; as true as this is of the big questions, I think it’s true of our thinking and our cultural conversations. When we learn to honor and value long and careful thoughts alongside brevity, pithiness, and punch, I think we will start to fight less as we learn and grow together.

“Cut to the chase!” they cry. Sometimes I obey. But as I get older, I gain the courage to say no. “I prefer not to,” as Bartelby the Scrivener might say.

“Life is short, but art is long.”


Image: © Shutterstock (used under license)

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