Monday, December 14, 2009

The Limits of Long Letters

One of my most demanding and thought-provoking grad school professors, Judith Yaross Lee, occasionally mentioned a letter so lengthy that the writer added a note of apology, explaining that he didn't have time to cut the extraneous material.

My memory of how she actually conveyed the anecdote has drifted over the years, yet I've retold her story many times since.

Eventually, after years of transmogrification, the guy had written an 80 page letter and literally clipped a note on top, saying, "Sorry, didn't have time to shorten it." I'd long forgotten his name, but I still told the story to illustrate how good writing is frequently measured by what is omitted more than what is present.

Professor Lee would have been displeased.

After all, this is the professor who once responded to my half-assed attempt at impromptu classroom analysis by replying that I could only raise my hand again if I could support my claims with three facts.

So in honor of Professor Lee, I finally took the time to get the facts right about this anecdote. I could yet be wrong, but I believe the story refers to Blaise Pascal's Provincial Letters, Containing an Exposure of the Reasoning and Morals of the Jesuits, which includes the following passage:
"[M]y letters have not usually followed each other so long; the little time I have had is the reason of both. I should not have extended this so much, but that I cannot command leisure to shorten it."
Pascal's words are a bit wordier than my preferred pithy quote, but I guess that's the idea.

Want to learn more about the famed French mathematician and philosopher? Might as well start at Wikipedia:

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