That gem of an idea comes from Lewis Lapham's talk at Google. I learned of Lapham through the online sections of his eponymous periodical, which with its liberal sprinkling of canonical extracts, is like a humanities core class taught by an upper-tier professor with a passion for learning.
Since learning of Lapham, I came back to him in my research, almost by accident, when I was looking at the history of the American periodical. He served as editor at Harper's for over thirty years - and Harper's has a long history, being among one of the three most popular magazines as early as the 19th century, alongside Scribner's and The Atlantic.
His comment about "gold" is connected to all the trash there is out there: in the news, in literature, etc. But he says that "gold takes work", not only in finding it, but in requisite interaction with it: the gold requires active participation on the part of the reader. We can thus imagine its transformative powers if how few readers have the commitment to true value.
I agree, and for years have been quoting an esteemed Asian antiques appraiser who said: "There was as much trash in the Qin Dynasty as there is today." But if a work requires engagement, it requires an audience that is able or willing to commit to a piece. I wonder if such a public exists.
Lapham talked about the "new language" emerging in news: it is shorter, and so needs to be poetic if it is to be reflective. He gave examples of the innovative columns he introduced to Harper's: the Harper's Index, which were bullet points on certain subjects to provoke thought; also an objet trouvé-type section where a print artefact - a hotel bill, a ticket - was accompanied by brief commentary.
Poetry requires reflection. So poetic prose could be - as it has been - the X that marks the spot, if one seeks to make gold, or find it - though I can't think of how to make it shorter. I think immediately of Ruskin's work: it is poetic. And to look farther back, remember when science used to be set to poetry? Darwin's grandfather's works on evolution were book-length poems. So was De Rerum Natura.
But Lapham observes that the length of articles has become progressively shorter - it will suffice to remember that at the turn of the last century, entire book chapters were regularly published in periodicals. Not the case today.
Length enables a solid context to be constructed. Even the LQ editorials are long - some, with footnotes. Footnotes, if used correctly (brilliant commentary on footnotes here), can be like shortcuts to another well-constructed context.
Because the essence of "context" is in the engagement/will to understand, in the final count, perhaps context is best understood when one can imagine it. No texts - as Gadamer has explained - can cultivate the mind that is not open. But the child in me wishes to think that poetry helps the imagination, and that truth can be intimated even in brevity.
If I have piqued your interest in the slightest, do listen to Lapham's talk.