Throwing (Almost) Everything Out

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Loyal readers of this space will remember a post from a couple of months back in which I described the experience of winnowing down my old research files. That was one drawer. I’ve now done six, and as with that first round, I’m discarding almost everything, putting a strain on our town’s Zero Sort Recycling system.

But one of the joys of going through it all is rediscovering that handful of things that remind me of why I carefully selected, copied, stapled and filed it away in the first place. One of them was a brief excerpt by Jean-Paul Sartre from his 1949 book What Is Literature? I’ll offer you an even briefer excerpt here:

To write is thus both to disclose the world and to offer it as a task to the generosity of the reader.

To write, Sartre claims, is to reduce some phenomenon into an order, an order that is first seen only by that writer. We don’t tell every movement and every thought of our characters, only those that we believe all point together to a core characteristic or trait or dilemma that we’ve seen all along but that we believe others may not have. When we write nonfiction, we discard almost everything about some phenomenon, relaying only those parts that convey and test and explore the pattern we hear in the noise.

Colleges have been around for a few hundred years. There are almost five thousand of them in the US right now, employing millions of people and educating tens of millions of others. They spend untold billions of dollars, provide millions of meals a day, millions of dormitory beds. They raise the ire of thousands of commentators, raise the hopes of thousands of others.

In the new book, I have a mere 80,000 words to draw our attention to one minuscule component of that vast galaxy of experiences and interconnections. Because of that, my experience of researching and writing it has been that almost everything I want to say about higher education is thrown out, in order to more clearly portray a particular pattern. The pattern is hard to discern, as it’s interwoven throughout the entire enterprise, and the temptation is to describe every point of connection. That would require dozens, hundreds, of books. So a great deal of the work has been the building of wonderful paragraphs that have been discarded days later, because they don’t do the core work of patternmaking.

In a year or so, that book will be out in the world, an offering to the generosity of its readers, who may use it to see a similar pattern in their own specific surroundings. To say, “You know, I’ve seen that a thousand times, but I never noticed it.” To do their own winnowing, to set most of experience aside to focus closely, and only, on one structured pattern within it.