06 February 2009

Words and white space

A couple of days ago, my daughter picked up the novel I'm currently reading and began leafing through it. She's just begun studying English Lit at school, which will challenge her because prior to this Christmas all of her reading was either Dr Who, Star Wars, the Twilight series or the Eragon series. Just before Christmas, she read Jane Austen's Persuasion, which she quite liked, and which gave me hope that she may be ready to expand her reading range.

So, anyway, she picked up the novel and read a couple of paras, and said, "Oh, this looks interesting. What's it like?"

I told her I liked it, but that it was a dense read.

"Dense?" she said. "What do you mean by dense?"

Indeed -- what did I mean by it? It's something that I recognise as soon as I see it, but it can be due to any combination of a number of things. Not much dialogue. Long sentences. Complex vocabulary. Complex ideas. Long paras. Long chapters. Not much white space. A slow turning of pages. (Not boring, just slow.) Lots of detail. Not much happening. Lots of words on the page.

Dense reads are often a slog, but a rewarding slog. I rarely begrudge the time I have spent on them. They feel profound, full of gravitas. I think of books like Cold mountain and remember the surprise that I felt (and that my teacher felt, I think) that no-one else in the class liked it. It was bleak. Very bleak. And dense. A book to wade through as you might wade through the mire of the battlefield, but one that you would come out of with your mind whirling -- a book that would leave you thinking for days after it. A book that you have Experienced. (Yes, with a capital E.)

Dense books are sometimes lyrical, sometimes not. They're rarely plot-driven -- and the pacing is so different from most genre novels, most popular novels, that perhaps it's no surprise that people struggle with them. We've become a world of ten-second grabbers -- we want everything now, and everything fast. Onto this, get through it (or don't) and then onto the next thing -- no time to luxuriate, to wallow in a dense book. And yet they have their appeal, for rarely are worlds so well realised as in dense books. I am there: immersed in sensory details -- the headiness of frangipani, the glide of fingers over marble, the iron-rich tang of blood on a tongue, the cold shawling my shoulders.

It's funny, then, that the psychological effect of white space is so strong. I can pick up a book, flick through the pages -- and if there's no white space, if there's only two or three paras on a double-paged spread, I'm likely to put it down again. I have to be in the right headspace for a dense read. Holidays are good -- not too much on my mind. Perhaps it has to do with knowing that the plot is unlikely to have me tearing through the book to find out what is going to happen. Dense reads do take me a lot longer (but then there are more words to get through, right?) than another book of similar length, and it's easy to walk away from them if you haven't been at them for a couple of days. Language, no matter how beautiful, isn't enough to hold me.

My own writing isn't dense. Sometimes I feel it should be more so -- things that aren't dense can feel shallow. On the other hand, editors have said it is well paced, and to flesh things out more is to compromise that fast pace. But isn't that partly the beauty of writing -- finding the balance for each individual project?


Leah-Mae's Scribbles said...

Hi Tracey,

I know what you mean! last year I borrowed Geoffery Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" from one of my mum's friends- and still haven't finished!!

Its very good, so it is, as you say, worth the slog!

I'll get there eventually!

Cheers, Leah

Sherryl said...

Yes, "The God of Small Things" and "Prep" are two that immediately come to mind. I had to wait until I had some decent headspace (had tried both a couple of times and put them down again) but once you're ready, they do reward you in marvellous ways.

avisannschild said...

I just commented on someone's blog that the book they were reading sounded dense to me and she had the same reaction as your daughter. ("Dense?" she said. "What do you mean by dense?") This prompted me to google "dense read" and I came across your post. As I said to her, you put it much better than I could have!

Ms. Patricia said...

I appreciate finding out this phrase--it never occurred to me to thumb through a book to see how much white space there was. I have read books with lots of white space that I enjoyed, but the ones I read more than once are dense--they're the ones most worth reading. Whether Jane Austen, Geoffrey Chaucer, or Kaye Gibbons, these are the books that become my lifelong friends.