How Much Information Is Too Much ?

When I wrote about The Lives Of Others by Neel Mukherjee a while back, I had mentioned how I have always had a bias against works of fiction that have additional information at the start. I have noticed that these range from a simple list of characters to maps and schematics. My main problem with these is that they interrupt my reading considerably. I have to keep going back and forth between the information and the actual story. Also, in such books, you are required to finish them at one sitting. Pick it up after a while and you will most likely be lost.

Before I come to the specific instance of The Lives Of Others, let me give two other examples of books I have encountered with a heavy dose of information. Coincidentally, both are by Alistair MacLean.

1. Breakheart Pass – the entire story takes place on a train and hence the order of the carriages is a crucial part of the story. In addition to that, there is a very detailed list of characters too. Although at first glance I was very apprehensive about this, I managed to finish it thanks to the fast paced narration.

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2. HMS Ulysses – this is a completely different case though. I couldn’t finish the book at all ! Just look at the map below. Bad enough by itself but it is also accompanied by a timeline ! There is a personal angle here to add to the agony – I am terrible at geography 😦

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Now, coming to The Lives Of Others. It starts off with the family tree, a map of Bengal and ends with a glossary of Indian words and a note on Bengali family terms. Personally, I didn’t find this all that troublesome and here is why

1. The family tree – I found myself familiar with all the characters by the end of the first few chapters so I didn’t refer to it later on.

2. The Map – I found it quite inconsequential to the story. Even without the map, it would have been worked.

3. The Bengali terms – Had to refer to it a few times to get the relationship terms right.

4. The list of Indian words – I am not Bengali but I didn’t find the need to refer to these words. They were pretty common Hindi words like Adda , etc.

But what about those unfamiliar with the language ? FictionFan has reviewed the book and I quote,

Combine this confusion with the fact that the author (probably realistically) uses three or more different variations of name for each character and frankly the book becomes extremely hard to follow. There is a family tree at the beginning, but I really expect authors to be skilled enough to keep me informed without me constantly having to break off to go consult charts, or look up the glossary of endless Indian words that are included in a book which is supposedly written in English (by an Indian born/English resident author).

I can quite understand this point of view too. If I hadn’t understood the words and some of the stray cultural references, I don’t think I would have been able to finish the book at all.

So after having completed a few reads with such information, have I got over my bias ? Actually, no.

Which brings me to another recent example – In The Light Of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman. When the book first released, there was a craze surrounding it and I almost bought it too. But then slowly the negative reviews started coming in and all of them said the exact same thing – too much additional information in the form of footnotes,etc. You can check out Katharine Lunn’s review here. After reading these reviews, my interest has waned considerably.

Why do you think authors opt for this type of writing ? Do you also share the same opinions about this or are you ok with the information overload ? 

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8 thoughts on “How Much Information Is Too Much ?

  1. I can find quite frustrating when you have pages of information at the beginning or end of the book. But I read a lot if fantasy so you can get used to it because there will always be maps of the world and occasionally a list of the characters. While it is frustrating it can be invaluable to help you not get lost in the story so sometimes its necessary.

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  2. I think if there are very long asides it can detract from the flow of the story. I don’t want to be constantly interrupted! But often with bigger sagas, family trees etc can really help. So I think it depends on how skillfully the writer does it. And thanks for citing me!

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  3. Thanks for the link! And for the interesting post. 😀

    Well, I think you know my views on this! In general, I can find a character list quite helpful in a long book, and very occasionally a map might help. But for me the map should appear at the appropriate point in the text rather than at the beginning, and the character list shouldn’t be essential. The author should remind me (subtly) how the characters fit in and relate to each other.

    As for glossaries? Pah! They drive me mad. A skilled author should be able to tell me what a word means by the context. In ‘The Lives of Others’ at one point he lists 4 or 5 types of tree or bush, none of which I knew. But he told me nothing about them other than their names – that’s just lazy, and irritating to read. He could easily have said ‘the broad green leaves of the whadyacallit tree provided a background for the dramatic purple blooms of the suchandsuch bushes…’ Then I’d have had an idea of what they were without the need to resort to glossaries, google or boredom… 😉

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    1. But wouldn’t the presence of a map in the middle of the text be even more irksome ? That way you are compelled to check it. If it is at the beginning, I just skip it and take the risk of understanding the routes less 😉

      Ha Ha ok 😀 Point taken ! Like I said, I didn’t find the need to refer the glossary but I guess it would be irritating if its that way. Whadyacallit and Suchandsuch – very intriguing species indeed 😉

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  4. I understand!
    Hmm,that list of characters is pretty usual for Russian novels where the names of the characters can be pretty confusing.
    As the story unfolds though,I get used to the names and eventually stop referring to that list.

    As for the glossary.I think the problem has more to do with the fact that there are no footnotes,and that can be very annoying.With footnotes,you don’t have to keep turning the pages so as to grasp the definition of something.
    However I do believe that ”folkloric” terms are imperative in a book aiming to convey a particular culture; for instance,in Anna Karenina there were many French words as in Old Russia,the aristocrats used to converse to converse in French,which was a noble language according to them.

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