Guest Post: “Deleting Digits” by Oliver Langmead

LangmeadO-AuthorPicA confession: I don’t know how much a billion dollars is. Not really. Sure, I can write it down ($1,000,000,000), but that number doesn’t really mean much to me. I imagine that it gets even more meaningless the more zeroes you put on the end. I know how much a tin of beans costs, and I know how much my monthly rent is, but I would genuinely struggle to tell you the major differences between a millionaire and a billionaire, despite the staggering disparity between their relative fortunes (billionaires have more jet planes?).

Similarly: I don’t know how long a thousand years is. It’s beyond my ability to comprehend. When it’s written down as a figure (1000) it’s lovely and neat, and I know it’s a hundred decades, or ten centuries, or any amount of artful mathematical ways of putting it, but I struggle to imagine what living through a thousand years would actually be like; how that vast amount of time would feel. Neither can I effectively contain all the events that would happen during a span of a thousand years in my head.

Statistics are vitally important, but a necessary function of a statistic is that it compresses a subject down to a useful figure — a set of digits. And a side effect of compressing a huge subject down to a set of digits is that it also compresses every element of the concept being represented by that figure. So, when we start to unpack a figure (1,000,000,000 dollars, 1000 years) in our heads, it can feel frightening. Sometimes, it can make you feel vertigo.

When I sat down to write a book about what it would be like if the biblical first man, Adam, were still alive today, the first problem I ran into was his age. Just how old would Adam be? Theologians down the ages are divided. In the end, though — putting an exact figure on it was unhelpful. Whenever I settled on a set of digits, it compressed the awesome amount of time he would have to have lived through down so much that it felt as if it diminished his character.

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After much experimentation, the most effective way I found of representing Adam’s age was by avoiding digits and dates altogether. Instead of attaching a quantified amount of years to him, I gave him memories of ancient places and times long passed.

I found this principle — of avoiding digits, so as to better represent the significance of a vast of amount of time having passed — so interesting that I ended up applying it to the whole of Birds of Paradise. You won’t find a single set of digits or dates anywhere in it, which makes thinking through huge ideas like billionaires and immortal lives feel different. It forces you, as a reader, to confront them — to feel that vertigo of facing them.

I think, on reflection, using storytelling instead of statistics is probably an extension of that old writing adage: show don’t tell. I enjoyed the experiment of removing all the digits from my book — it was a fun challenge, and one I’d extend to you, if you write. You probably don’t need to go as far as I did, but you might like to consider the ways you help your reader think through big ideas like vast wealth, exceptionally long lives, or even more difficult-to-parse statistics like death counts. I’d say that confronting them is the first step towards dealing with them effectively.

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Oliver Langmead’s Birds of Paradise is out today, published by Titan Books in North America and in the UK.

Also on CR: Guest Post on “A Few Words on Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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