<%-- Page Title--%> Nothing If Not Serious <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 143 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

February 27, 2004

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Is this a Reader-Friendly Column?

Shawkat Hussain

I got an email from the SWM recently telling me to shorten my columns to about 650 words. My columns are normally around 1000 words, so that's 350 fewer words to write, which should make my job easier. I don't have a problem with this, but I do have a problem with the logic behind this move. SWM wants to increase the font size (decrease the total number of words) to make the magazine more reader-friendly. The argument that larger fonts and fewer words make a magazine reader-friendly is quite specious.

I simply do not understand how 1000 words of what is sometimes funny, mostly honest, and essentially drivel, can suddenly become less drivel and more reader-friendly when it is cut down to 650. It is just drivel in bigger fonts. In fact the opposite might be considered to be a more reasonable editorial position. Printing longer pieces in smaller fonts, so that readers may not read or detect the drivel that is written. The strategy is a bit like the one used in insurance documents where small fonts are used and the language is mostly incomprehensible legalese.

Brevity, it is well-known, is the soul of wit. But brevity is by means a guarantee of wit. Some of the mottoes that I quoted in my last column were very brief, such as mottoes ought be, but completely devoid of good sense, humour, and taste. One can be brief and big (font-wise) and still be utterly stupid and inane. The quotes printed in this paper's City Express column regularly for their "humour, insight, and sheer outrageousness" always fall completely flat. They appear in big fonts, are sometimes italicized and sometimes bold, and usually separate from the rest of the paper. They are invariably boring and unfriendly.

I have never felt like ripping my guts out laughing at the sheer outrageousness of any of them. I have not been able to even twist my mouth into forming the shadow of an amused smile. My own feeling is that not even myopic, geriatric readers used to reading the SWM with magnifying glasses would find these utterly unfunny utterances reader-friendly. Eyes-friendly, yes, but not reader-friendly.

However, if you can come up with sharp quips and probes, delicate thrusts, or even frontal verbal assaults, which are good and clever, printing them in small fonts would not detract from their impact. Sharp one-liners and short takes have merit in themselves and do not depend on the size of fonts to make them reader-friendly. Take Descartes' classic one-liner, for example. Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore, I am. And now consider an American humourist's play on the famous line. I think I am, therefore I am. I think.

I was recently introduced to George Carlin, author of the above bon mot, a 'thinking person's comic" by a Bangladeshi undergraduate studying in the US. Carlin's "razor-sharp observations on God, language, death, pets, driving, food, sports, airplanes, advertisements, news, businessmen, and much, much more" might be hilarious reading for all of SWM's readers with good stomachs. Good stomachs are necessary because Carlin does not pull any of his punches: he is direct, abusive, irreverent, visceral, and utterly honest. His second book, Napalm and Silly Putty (which I have), contains the same type of drivel as the first book, Brain Droppings (which I don't). Here is just one sample.

"Next time they give you all that civic bullshit about voting, keep in mind that Hitler was elected in a full, free, democratic election." And so was George Bush, in an election that was almost full and free. And so was Arnold Schwarzenegger in California. If this is the best America can do, we have no reasons to complain. There is a good chance we might do something similar when we next vote.

I was recently holidaying in Cox's Bazaar at the height of the holiday season. I had been reading Carlin all the way on the train to Chittagong. When I hit the main beach in the afternoon just before sunset, there were thousands just walking about. The beach was like a traffic jam without vehicles. It suddenly occurred to me that there is so much productive procreation going on in Bangladesh. Carlin would have used a word I dare not.

I am back in Dhaka now, just getting ready to re-read one of the most reader-friendly novels I have ever read: the 1397-page novel A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. Such creative works have great prophylactic value.
I reckon I have overshot my limit a little.

The writer can be contacted at bangla_deshi@hotmail.com




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