Here’s to the Long Read and why we need it

Founder of altMBA, Squidoo & Yoyodyne. Daily blogger, teacher, speaker, 18 bestsellers as well. I read his blog first thing every morning. Really!

Seth Godin is currently one of the smartest people writing about the ad industry, media and communications. He does not think about the technicalities of these things as much as he ponders the philosophy of work and business. That’s why I have a feed from his blog on this website. A recent post of his was particularly thought-provoking; “Ignaz Semmelweis saw the same problem that others saw. But he took responsibility and solved it.” It is a long title and a long post. Very long. 35 minutes to read, he says. So, I read it. I was so taken aback by it, I had to go back and read it again. 

Godin notes that the post is a translation of a paper that Semmelweis wrote more than a hundred years ago. It is so well written that it drew me in, but what a sad truth emerged. (If you want to read it yourself, the link is here.)

Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician of German extraction now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures. After having done years of detective work, analyses, and investigations to find out why so many hundreds of women and children were dying of puerperal fever (also known as “childbed fever”) for no obvious reason, he finally found out why.

The truth was, he was one of the main sources of the infection that killed them. It is as awful as Marie Curie dying of radiation poisoning leading from the very element she discovered, polonium.

“In consequence of my conviction I must af­firm that only God knows the number of pa­tients who went prematurely to their graves be­cause of me. I have examined corpses to an extent equaled by few other obstetricians. If I say this also of another physician, my intention is only to bring to consciousness a truth that, to humanity’s great misfortune, has remained un­known through so many centuries. No matter how painful and oppressive such a recognition may be, the remedy does not lie in suppression. If the misfortune is not to persist forever, then this truth must be made known to everyone concerned.” (Source: Excerpted from Ignaz Semmelweis, The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed. Fever, trans. K. Codell Car­ter. Madison, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.)

Not everything can be a short post

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, aged 42 in 1860 (Wikipedia)

The long post proves Godin’s point. Semmelweis took years of painstaking analyses to get to the truth. And, befitting the subject, though the excerpt is written concisely and with feeling, it is still long and complicated has a lot of tables and medical terminology in it. But wading through it is ultimately rewarding as Semmelweis leads us to the logical conclusion.

Godin’s point is that sometimes we need to make a special effort and put in the time to work through long reads in order to get to the truth. Most things that are important cannot be explained in 140 characters. Things that are complicated, and critical, and that matter, often need time to be explained and to comprehend.  “In today’s tl;dr [“too long; didn’t read”] world, you might be tempted to read a quick summary and then move onto a funny cat video. I hope you’ll slow down for ten minutes and try to imagine what it was like to be Semmelweis, to be surrounded by mysterious disease and death, to spend a moment or two looking into the numbers… and then, if you’re still along for the ride, to imagine what you would have done once you realized that it was you, your hands, your actions, that killed so many mothers and their children…”

Godin says that this is what meaningful work, and meaningful communication, is all about: “Figure it out. Do the math. Spin a theory. Prove it. Repeat.”

It is, in any case, far harder, and more risky, to shorten a communique (for instance to Twitter length) because of the meaning that could get lost. But again, it takes time to make a short version good, and ensure that it still makes sense and is still correct. French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in a letter in a collection called “Lettres Provinciales” in the year 1657: “Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.” Translated, this reads: I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter. So, one way or another, you can’t always get away with shortcuts in reading, writing or thinking.

Often when I’m figuring out how to write a proposal or how to explain something in a brochure, or how to illustrate what is un-illustratable, I realize I need to give it time. When I am required to reduce one of my book reviews to 150 words for FairLady magazine, I find, all too often, that in reducing the write-up, I lost the main idea somewhere or got the emphasis wrong, or left out a crucial fact. I must keep at it until I figure it out, and I usually do. So should you. Do the long read and the long think and figure things out. Do not take short-cuts if what you are doing is important.

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