Literary Calories

ONE of the popular magazines prints at the head of each article, or story, the length of time required for its reading. This information is a comfort to the author, who is thereby assured that one person, at least, has read his article. But, from the point of view of the reader, such an editorial caption is exasperating. It tells only one of a number of things which the reader would like to know in advance, some of them far more important than the reading time. For example: the writing time.

If it is important to know how long it will take to read an article, is it not more important to know how long it took the writer to write it? Did he dash this thing off in a carefree quarter hour, or did he spend several hours in the preliminary writing and subsequent revising of what he had to say? Was the writing time of his article fifteen minutes, or five hours and thirty minutes? Whether I have the time to read a given article is a question which troubles me less than whether it is worth my reading.

This matter of the worth of an article suggests the possibility of a caption containing the formula for the mixture, after the manner of the formula on a bottle of patent medicine which tells what the ingredients of the liquid are, and in what per cent they occur.

At the head of an article on, let us say, ‘Fascism in America,’ there would be some such caption as this: —

Per cent
Factual incidents 2
Unverified rumors 33
Author's prejudices 55
Concealed propagand 10

Such a caption would aid both the proFascist and the anti-Fascist reader in deciding whether it was worth their while to read the article.

The formula caption would be especially valuable to the reader of books. The possibilities of the idea fairly burst upon us in a bewildering shower. A friend is dispirited. You step into a bookstore to select a book. ’Something cheerful,’ you say to the clerk, and he hands you the current glad-book. You glance at the caption: —



Per cent
Plain platitudes 25
Attempted humor 30
Real humor 5
Egregious advice 20
Original idea 0
Inert matter 20

Either you do or you do not buy the book. Some would.

Or you may have gone into the store to get for yourself something light and popular to relax your mind, if not your conscience. The clerk hands you a copy of Farewell to Legs.

You turn to the title-page and read: —


Per cent
Brilliant writing 35
Sex 33 1/3
Cynicism 15
Psychopathic 15
Normal responses 1 1/3
Stabilizing matter 0 1/3

Again, some would.

The possible values of the caption are not limited to the field of literature. Consider the menu which confronted me in a popular chain restaurant. Opposite each item on the menu was given the content in calories. I thought this information must be valuable or it would n’t be there, so I made a speedy calculation of the total calories in the lunch I planned to order. The total was heartening. It was all and more than I needed in the way of calories. But was there time for me to eat them all? The menu gave me no help in this matter, which was quite as important at the moment as the number of concealed calories. I commend to all chain restaurants, and also to the unchained, the idea of printing at the head of each prearranged meal not merely the price, and not only the content in calories, but also the length of time required for eating.

CLUB LUNCH (1). $1.00

1500 calories

Eating time 32 minutes, 10 seconds

Even the à la carte items could be listed, with a little help from the Consumers’ Research : —


Quantity Calories Eating Time
1 egg 70 4 min.
1 banana 100 5 min.
butter (1 tbsp.) 100 15 sec.
milk (1 glass) 170 1 min. (advised)
1 dish prunes (5) 300 8 min.
1/2 head lettuce. 25 12 min.
765 30 min., 15 sec.

But it is the caption which tells of the author’s writing time that interests me most. In order to show how practical this idea is, I decided at the outset to check on the time it took me to write what I am writing. Of course there would be interruptions, and probably dark unproductive periods, which would have to be deducted; but it could be done. Like the sundial, I need mark only the sunny hours. My time sheet lies before me. I give it to you for what it is worth.

11.30 A.M Sit down to write

11.30-11.45 Try to think of good title, but give it up

11.45 Begin in earnest to write

11.47 Telephone call

11.50 Cross out what I have written, and begin in a different way

11.51-11.55 Wonder whether it is worth writing or shall I go out for a drive

11.55 Begin to write in real earnest

12.15 p.m. Go to lunch

11.20 p.m. After one thing and another ever since lunch, sit down to write

11.45 Ideas don’t come. Time for bed

That is all I find on the time sheet. It is now 12.30 P.M. of the next day. I got off to a good start soon after breakfast, but forgot to make note of the hour. There were various interruptions during the morning and I forgot to time them. However, the thing is finished. Of course I regret that I did not keep a check on my writing time, but my failure to do so does not prove that the idea itself is not practical. Given a practical man to do the writing, the time check would be a simple matter — provided he could write.