Much to my chagrin, I’m always finding out that I’m more influenced by our culture than I thought. Here’s a case in point—last night while reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, I kept getting distracted by length of all the paragraphs—some spanning more than a page.
We’re conditioned by a number of influences to partake of content in short bits. Perhaps this tendency starts with our parents cutting up our food into little bits during childhood, but I suspect that electronic media has much to do with it as anything. Thirty minute sitcoms are interrupted at least four times with commercial breaks. The longest segments on television news last only a couple of minutes. Even between commerical breaks, television shows adopting the MTV style of rapid cuts rarely have any sustained dialog.
Consider that responses in Presidential debates are only a couple of minutes each. Consider the fact that when USA Today was introduced, it touted its brevity along with the fact that its front page story both began and ended on the front page. Add in the emergence of the cell phone as a standard item (which of course includes call-waiting), and even a long, uninterrupted conversation with anyone is rare.
Contrast this with virtually any book written in the 19th century. The paragraphs tend to be long, and the thoughts contained within them are often complex. There are exceptions—some writers simply were too long-winded. Whether complex or not, ultra-long paragraphs confound today’s readers, the present writer included.
This should give us all pause to ponder something often taken for granted. Are we, with all our technological advances, really smarter than our forbearers or are we simply the beneficiaries of technological advancement who indeed may be able to comprehend even less than our ancestors of a century ago?