Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Book Review: The Powers That Be - writing style

I began my review of David Halberstam's The Powers That Be here, and now continue, this time discussing Halberstam's writing style.

After the seventeen page Prelude, Halberstam gave us a twenty-two page chapter on CBS, then a forty-nine page chapter on Time Incorporated (Time and Life magazines), then a twenty-seven page chapter on the Los Angeles Times. A hundred pages and three chapters. Looking through this I almost gave up reading before I began. Such long chapters, all of dense writing, presents the reader used to half-hour or hour long reading stints with a daunting task. A chapter break indicates a break in subject; lack of a chapter break indicates no break in subject and that the reader should keep reading. But that was often impossible, and a mid-chapter break became essential. Getting back into the midst of a chapter the next day was difficult.

When I say the writing was dense, I don't mean intellectually, but rather in terms of names, facts, and opinions. Each chapter was full of names: publication or institution founder, heirs, spouses, spouses ancestors, politicians, politicians' media assistants, publishers, editors, reporters. Keeping them all straight was pretty much impossible, and a third of the way through the book I gave up. If on page 250 I encountered a name I was pretty sure I read somewhere in the first fifty pages, and Halberstam was now telling of how his career had moved, I knew I should flip back, find the name, re-read what I read the week (or two) before to have the full context, then continue at page 250. I didn't, however. I just kept reading, hoping new context would give me enough to not worry about exactly what this assistant editor did earlier in his career. Perhaps my understanding of the history was thus lacking, but that was the only way for me to get through the book this decade.

In my review of David Morrell's The Totem, I talked about the B-A-C writing style; that is, where a writer begins at a certain point of time, the present moment (B), then goes back in time for context (A), then forward from the present moment into the future (C). I used that technique quite a bit in Doctor Luke's Assistant. Since Halberstam is writing history, not fiction, he had no future to move on to, but he used this B-A-C technique, though in a much more complicated way. He began at a point in time in his history, then went backwards, then forward somewhat but not yet to the starting point, then backward in a tangent thread, then forward but still not to the starting point, then somewhere else. This looked something like a G-B-F-A-C-E-D-I-J-K style. This was way too much, especially in the longer chapters. I became hopelessly confused in know where I was--or wasn't--in time.

Halberstan liked to mention moments of irony, normally with paired statements of opposites. He tried to show how one generation of owners either passed on or failed to pass on to the next generation the importance of certain values, but I don't know that he fully accomplished this goal.

In the next (and last) post, I'll review Halberstam's apparent conclusions and give some of my own.

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