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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Time Enough at Last


Linda Holmes over at NPR has a really great article on what it means to be "well-read" in the information age. Basically, those words don't mean the same as they did 100 years ago. Or even 10 years ago. It's not until you have easy, if not instant, access to any piece of literature ever written (or film, song, artwork, etc.), that you realize the impossibility of experiencing it all within a human lifespan.

well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you'd have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.

I used to marvel at how well-read the privileged seemed to be in the 19th century. But looking back, what did they have to read but just what came before them? Which is an enormous amount, to be sure. But that amount has surely doubled since that point. And accessing a piece of literature now doesn't require writing letters of inquiry, ordering said book from the bookseller, who orders it from the publisher, where said book bounces along in a horse-drawn carriage for 100 miles, and is brought to your doorstep by some English guy named Pip wearing a chimney sweep outfit (this is my fantasy don't ruin it). In 2011 my biggest complaint is that if I purchase something from Google's ebook store, I have to pay with Visa instead of PayPal.

What I've observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you'd otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, "All genre fiction is trash." You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you've thrown out so much at once.

The same goes for throwing out foreign films, documentaries, classical music, fantasy novels, soap operas, humor, or westerns. I see people culling by category, broadly and aggressively: television is not important, popular fiction is not important, blockbuster movies are not important. Don't talk about rap; it's not important. Don't talk about anyone famous; it isn't important. And by the way, don't tell me it is important, because that would mean I'm ignoring something important, and that's ... uncomfortable. That's surrender.

I try to be as open-minded as possible when it comes to books/films/music, etc. But you have to cut corners somewhere. It doesn't bother me as much when someone dismisses a certain genre as it does when someone sticks only to ONE genre and ignores all the rest. I've tried so far to make my 100 books list somewhat diverse, weaving in-and-out of genres at will. And yes, I'm obscenely behind schedule. Next year I'm doing a 100 films challenge or something. 100 sudoku puzzles. 100 times I will actually make up my bed.

So since we aren't immortal, yes, we will miss out on some stuff. But it's okay.

It's sad, but it's also ... great, really. Imagine if you'd seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you're "supposed to see." Imagine you got through everybody's list, until everything you hadn't read didn't really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.

If you haven't read it, don't worry, someone else has. Call me a socialist Muslim Kenyan, but I've always seen humanity as a collective being, not just a group made up of individuals. Haven't seen the Grand Canyon, or sky dived, read Henry James, or experienced life as an Tibetan monk? Well, someone else has. Is. Will. So you don't have to. It isn't really the literature/art/music itself that will endure into the ages (or at least until 2012), it's the effect it has on those who experience it. What new perceptions on life it has given them, how it changes them for better or worse, and how they pass that on to everyone they come in contact with.

The entire fabric of society could be upheld by some unwritten poem recited 10,000 years ago that no one's even heard of.

Even Snooki's book will impact someone, somewhere. God help us all.

So don't try to become a vampire, or wait to be the last person on Earth so you have all the time you need to read everything in existence. Because then you'll just drop your glasses, and where will you be.

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