So what if he’s barrel-chested?

Why do so few people share my dismissal of the value of biographical interludes, emphasizing physical body descriptions, in reporting on important public issues?

Is it just I?

Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction (2014) discusses the ongoing murder of other species, possibly culminating in total human suicide. Not exactly a trivial subject. She has about 270 pages to do the job, and probably every word counts if she wants readers to gain, as she says, “an appreciation of the truly extraordinary moment in which we live” (p. 3).

But Kolbert writes for The New Yorker, and therefore one must subtract from the page count a biographic overhead factor (BOF) of about 5%, leaving only about 257 pages to do the real work.

On page 9, for example, Kolbert notes that

EVACC’s director is a Panamanian named Edgardo Griffith. Griffith is tall and broad-shouldered, with a round face and a wide smile. He wears a silver ring in each ear and has a large tattoo of a toad’s skeleton on his left shin.

When I see such de rigeur asides here, in New Yorker articles (where it seems about half the subjects are barrel-chested or have high cheekbones), or elsewhere, I always wonder what it is about me that makes them a placebo for me, while reportedly critical for other readers in allowing them to attend to the rest of the narrative. Do I have a special exemption from a dependence felt by others? Or do I have a special blindness not afflicting others? I’m not entirely alone, because my wife jokes about the BOF, too, but anybody else I have discussed this with seems to claim that almost the whole population finds it an essential catalyst for its appreciation of an author’s work.

For the majority, then, please insert the following after paragraph 1 above:

Kolbert has an oval face jutting out from a full head of black hair cascading like two waterfalls down either side and splashing onto the top of a black turtle-neck tee shirt. She looks straight at you with an ambiguous smile or smirk, above a lone dimple. Any jewelry, piercings, and body art are concealed from view.

Did that help?

2 thoughts on “So what if he’s barrel-chested?

  1. The personal description is a reader-friendly introduction that demands no intellectual work; it’s relevant filler, like transition passages in music that connect melodies but are not the central focus. In a general magazine as opposed to a scholarly journal this is welcome, probably necessary. By giving the reader something easily grasped, though not central, it avoids the dryness of academic prose.

  2. Lest I be lumped into the clueless camp: I’ve explained to you that these descriptions substitute for the multimedia input people get from documentary films, TV, and even radio (“She has an infectious laugh….”). You should do a study comparing the prevalence of these data in writing from today and 100 years ago.

    Actually I find your description of Kolbert quite fascinating, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a turtleneck t-shirt (I guess that would make it more of a lowercase ‘t’). The fact that she wears one could say something essential about her personality.

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