Shared Context And The Length Of Writings

As someone who reads a lot of books, I tend to notice a great deal in the way of patterns when I read them.  Some of the books I read are short, and many of them have a somewhat average length of between two and three hundred pages, and some books I read are far longer than that, approaching and passing even 1,000 pages at times.  Today, I would like to talk about one of the factors that influences the size of books that is not often considered, and that is the matter of context [1].  Context is one of those areas that is like the water in which fish swim or the air that we breathe, something that is invisible to us and is part of our ambient background that we take for granted even if we greatly depend on it.  Nevertheless, context matters a great deal in the lives we live, even such mundane activities as reading books.

In order to illustrate this point I would like to compare two books I recently finished.  One of these books was more than 800 pages long and was written by the late Theonomy writer Rousas John Rushdoony, largely a commentary on the ten commandments.  The second book was a book on vibrations from a New Age author I am not very familiar with, a book that came in at about 50 pages.  The first book was full of lengthy explanations, assuming that the author had no context with what was being said and so providing long quotations of biblical passages, the thoughts of writers that the author agreed with or disagreed with and wanted to praise or censure, and his own thoughts and reflections on the subject at hand.  The second book, on the other hand, assumed that the author was already familiar with the basic tenor of New Age spirituality and was largely in agreement with it, speaking of “karmic encounters” without even the barest hint of an explanation as to what that meant in the first place, and using the whole jargon of New Age self-therapy without a glossary of terms or defining the terms.  The author simply assumed that the reader already knew what she was talking about.

There are strengths and weaknesses with both approaches.  If you give no context, you will likely mystify those who do not share the context that you assume between readers.  It is all well and good to assume that you will share some fundamental and basic knowledge with the reader, but there are occasions where writers assume far too much background knowledge on the part of their readers and simply do not put forth the effort to come to terms with those who come to terms with them.  Admittedly, there are probably occasions where this has been the case with me.  On the other side, though, there are dangers in giving too much context.  For one, those people who are already familiar with context may be bored about having to wade through so much of what they already know to get something unfamiliar or striking or worthwhile.  There is another danger in that by speaking or writing too much one may give so much context that one may offend others who might have assumed there would be more agreement than actually exists.  I can certainly believe that this has been an issue as well in my own writing.

Therefore, let it be understood that when I examine the context provided by other writers that I use such reflections as a way to ponder my own writings.  There is clearly a balance that is desirable when it comes to context.  The amount of context we give may depend on the people we are communicating with–those who share more context will have more background information, and so less of it will have to be provided.  Additionally, it may depend on the subject.  Ultimately, though, one of the dangers that comes with being a writer is not being able to choose the audience of one’s writings.  Even if one writes, say, a personal letter to someone, there is no promise that the letter will remain private and personal, and sometimes even the recipient of a private communication lacks enough context or thinks they have more context than they actually do to interpret something in a friendly and accurate way.  How to be fair and kind to others, even when we think their words are in black and white and beyond complexity and ambiguity is a task that many readers and writers struggle with, some more than others.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Shared Context And The Length Of Writings

  1. Pingback: How Every Nathan Albright Blog Is Written | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s