Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A Revolution In Stupendia

In my previous post, "The Trouble With Stupendia", I explained what I mean by "stupendium" (a "stupendous compendium" but with less compliment and more stupidity). But I failed to mention that its roots are Latin, so of course the plural is "stupendia".

In that post I described the style of stupendium we see most often, but it's not the only style there is, so in this post I will call that style a "bare stupendium". To recap: A bare stupendium
amounts to dumping all the pieces on the table and letting the reader put the puzzle together. Or drawing all the dots but never even hinting at how they should be connected. Too many details, not enough synthesis.
In this post we will explore the landscape of stupendia in more detail, looking for useful ideas which may be hidden away somewhere.

Following Mom's standard recommendation, we'll take the good with the bad. In this case there are three flavors of each, and we'll start with the bad. By this I mean we'll look at the three main reasons why bare stupendia are horrible, then turn our attention to three styles of stupendium which are approximately infinitely better.

The three main reasons why bare stupendia are horrible are:

[1] they are horribly difficult to research,
[2] they are horribly difficult to write, and
[3] they are horribly difficult to read.

Why, then, do so many writers create so many bare stupdendia? There are several plausible explanations, and I outlined some of them in the previous post. Most of those reasons apply to writers under editorial and/or commercial pressure.

I think the main reasons why so many independent writers create bare stupendia are (a) because they're not familiar with the alternatives, and (b) because they don't realize how much better the alternatives are. And therefore I think it will be valuable to describe the four varieties of stupendium, three of which are approximately infinitely better than the other. (The numbers reflect the relative difficulty of writing, and the relative ease of reading, stupendia in each style):

[0] the bare stupendium,
[1] the sandwich stupendium,
[2] the switchback stupendium, and
[3] the lego block stupendium.

I will describe each of the four styles as concisely as possible. If I leave any questions hanging, please remind me in the comments.

[0] In a bare stupendium, the writer throws all the puzzle pieces on the table and leaves the reader to figure out how they fit together. This style is largely unacceptable for the reasons described above. Exceptions are academic papers where the audience can be assumed to know almost as much as (or even more than) the author.

[1] A sandwich stupendium is similar to a bare stupendium but slightly more difficult to write. The author starts by showing the reader what the puzzle will look like when it's finished. Then he dumps all the pieces on the table, and examines each piece separately. Having done that, he gives the reader another look at the picture with all the pieces in place, and this time the reader can appreciate the picture more fully because he has just seen the details on each individual piece.

So the sandwich stupendium consists of three layers: a relatively vague glimpse of the big picture, followed by a barrage of intricate details, then a more detailed look at the big picture. As you can see, the middle layer is itself a bare stupendium. And of course, a sandwich stupendium is more difficult to write than a bare one, but a sandwich stupendium has a good chance of making sense even to a reader who is largely unfamiliar with the material.

[2] If the picture is complicated and the details are abundant, a sandwich stupendium may be insufficient, because the bare stupendium in the middle can be too long. In those cases, we might prefer a switchback stupendium, which starts out with a small portion of the picture, fills in the details, moves to an adjacent small portion, fills in those details, and so on. By switching back and forth between a long-shot and a close-up, the author can make sure that no passage, whether of detail or overview, is too long to hold the reader's interest. People have been saying, "a change is as good as a rest" for a long time, and for a good reason.

[3] The best type of stupendium is the most difficult to write and the least difficult to read, and we can call it the Lego block stupendium. The work is divided into many chapters, and each chapter is split into several sections, so all the sections are short.

Each section makes sense on its own, so a casual reader can take in a page at a time and understand exactly what is being said. The sections are arranged so that each chapter makes even more sense than any of the sections it contains, and the chapters are arranged so that entire work makes more sense than any individual chapter.

If it's jammed full of minute details, the work as a whole can be seen as a stupendium (literally, "a stupendous compendium"), although no smaller unit of it could be described as such.

The theory behind the Lego block stupendium runs like this: Watch what happens when the author puts in enough extra work to make the reader's task easy!

If you're starting to get a mental image of Bill Blum, there's a good reason for that. Bill wrote massive and brilliant Lego block stupendia. Digging through Bill's archive was, for me, a Master Class in the art, or craft, or both, actually.

And reading one of Bill's books is like watching a stone mason at work. Here's a new wall, and there's another new wall, and so on ... before you know it, he's built a whole castle, one block at a time. I believe this explains, at least in part,

[1] why we loved him so much, and
[2] why we learned so much from him so easily.

We can't all write like Bill, and for many of us it would be foolish to try; the goal is so distant and the progress comes so slowly. We can't all play like Jimi or dance like Fred, either. But that's not important.

What we can do is pay more attention to what we're writing, think more about the people we hope will be reading us, and try to make things easier for them.

In practical terms, this means that those of us who are accustomed to writing bare stupendia might try a sandwich stupendium once in a while. And if that goes well, who knows where it might lead?

None of us may ever be described as "the next William Blum", but if we take some small steps to make things easier for our readers, they will find our writing easier (and more fun) to read, they will learn much more from us, and they will remember more of what they've learned. And as far as I can tell, that's the whole point of what we're doing.

This is why I am trying to foment a revolution in the art of the stupendium.

May we all write better stupendia!

May we all write revolutionarily better stupendia!

May we all foster the stupendian revoltion together!

And may our revolutionary stupendia lead to a revolutionary understanding of what we've been talking about for all these years!

What do you say? Can you say "Long Live The Revolution"??

Well done. I knew you could do that.