Harder to read than Ulysses

Sam Smith

All along your editor has thought his problem was that he didn’t speak opaquely and complexly enough to make it with the Washington crowd. Now the Amazon text rating system has proved otherwise. As reader CH put it, “I’m laughing my ass off. I first found out about this feature yesterday at Jorn Barger’s weblog, Robot Wisdom. His example is James Joyce’s famously difficult Ulysses which only requires a 7th grade education compared to your 12th. Sam, either you need to simplify your style if you want your message to be accessible to the average American, or the methods Amazon is using are worthless.”

According to Amazon, Ulysses has a fog index of 9 while Why Bother has one of 15. Sixteen percent of Why Bother consists of complex words while only 10% of Ulysses does. Ulysses has 1.5 syllables per word while Why Bother has 1.7. Ulysses has 12.1 words per sentence while Why Bother has 22.

While some of the complex words cited in Why Bother may just be misspellings, I am still stunned. On the other hand, Ulysses has far more “statistically improbable words” including ute ute ute, tooraloom tooraloom tooraloom, matrimonial gift, base barreltone, quaker librarian, absentminded beggar, pensive bosom, met him pike hoses, charming soubrette, editor cried, brown macintosh, retrospective arrangement, learning knight, seaside girls, croppy boy, and old sweet song.

The only one Amazon could come up with for Why Bother was new capitalism. And while this phrase appears six times that’s nothing like the 17 times it shows up in The Experience of Middle Australia: The Dark Side of Economic Reform by Michael Pusey.

I think where I may have foiled Amazon is that, while liking all manner of words and not being opposed to sentences coiling lazily around the tongue like a sultry snake, usually when one reaches the period you still know what the hell I’m talking about. My view is that there is no point in having words if you can’t play around with them a bit. Unless I guess wrong, the mathematical models Amazon uses would be happiest if I wrote like, say, Donald Trump.

As I was considering this, a quotation from a Japanese tourist cited years ago by the New Yorker came back. It is a good reminder that one can maintain meaning even when you break every rule. The tourist in Pennsylvania Station had been told his bags were missing. His response: “Pretty damn seldom where my bags go. They no fly. You no more fitten master baggage than Jesus Christ’s sake, that’s all I hope.

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