Frank Chimero

Brand & Product Designer
Brooklyn, New York
⚠️ This post is old and may no longer reflect my views.

Waste Need Not Waste

When you don’t have someone to teach you, looking closely at good things and noticing their patterns becomes your education. I have no formal teaching in writing or literature (perhaps the reason grammar is such a thorny matter for me), so I have to school myself. It’s fun.

I’m finally making my way through Robert Caro’s tome The Power Broker. One of the things that’s popping out is his use of repetition. This could be seen as a stylistic indulgence, but after reading about a fifth of the book’s 1200 pages, I’m realizing that Caro’s repetition becomes the thread that helps the reader through the book’s sprawling assessments, wide focus, and complex topics. Here is a bit from the beginning of the fifth chapter:

The wheels of the Tammany war machine might be greased with money, but the machine was pulled by men, the men who voted Democratic themselves, the men who rounded up newly arrived immigrants and brought them in to be registered Democratic, the men who during election campaigns rang doorbells and distributed literature to those immigrants and to their own friends and neighbors and on Election Day shepherded them to the polls to vote Democratic. And the most succulent of the carrots that lured these men forward, that kept their shoulders braced against the ropes that pulled the Tammany machine, was the carrot of jobs, jobs for themselves, jobs for their wives, jobs for their sons.

An easy read, since most of the words are the same words in different order, strung together to lead you on to the next idea and reiterate important points, strung together to reflexively reference previous ideas and build on top of those ideas. The first half of each new idea is the last half of the previous idea. Baby-stepping through a minefield of complexity.

Here is the same paragraph, with a few words left out:

The … Tammany war machine … machine… men, the men … the men … immigrants … the men … immigrants … the carrots … these men … the Tammany machine, … the carrot of jobs, jobs… jobs … jobs….

Sure, painfully close to beat poetry, but you still get the idea. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Power Broker’s page count were cut in half if you removed Caro’s repetition. But this would surely make the thing too dense for any normal reader.

Needless excess is, of course, the enemy of good writing, but that doesn’t mean all excess is needless. Sometimes a bit of padding is required. I’m reminded of the African drum communication described in the first chapter of James Gleick’s The Information:

No one spoke simply on the drums. Drummers would not say, “Come back home,” but rather,

Make your feet come back the way they went
make your legs come back the way they went,
plant your feet and your legs below,
in the village which belongs to us.

Nineteenth-century Europeans were bewildered by the musical correspondence. How could the locals derive nuanced meaning from a drum beat?

The first hurdle was to understand the drums mimicked the tonality of many African languages, where a spoken word’s meaning is determined by its rising or falling tone in addition to the sounds of its consonants and vowels. Tonality is missing from most Indo-European languages (such as English and the rest of the Romance languages), but is famously present in Cantonese and Mandarin as well as many African dialects. Distinguishing between words while speaking takes a sharp tongue: boili said flat means “riverbed”, but emphasize the middle consonant and it turns to “mother-in-law.”

Drums do not have tongues, however, and can not make the sounds of consonants or vowels. They can only communicate through tone. So how does one say things with a drum, despite missing half the tools of the spoken language? The drummer reproduces the tone of the appropriate word, which limits the field of words to those with similar cadence, then he clarifies which of those words he intends through context. Gleick, again:

A drummer would invariably add “a little phrase” to each short word. Songe, the moon, is rendered as songe li tange la manga—“the moon looks down at the earth.” Koko, the fowl, is rendered koko olongo la bokiokio—“the fowl, the little one that says kiokio.” … Every ambiguous word begins in a cloud of possible alternative interpretations; then the unwanted possibilities evaporate.

Both the drums and Caro’s writing style are examples of people using redundancy and inefficiency to overcome ambiguity. Sometimes puffy writing is more efficient communication, because it’s the best way to get a complex idea through. I’m learning to appreciate that the clear thing isn’t always the simple thing.