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