Wednesday, April 20, 2011

How much of a problem is it that you don't have enough time in your whole life to become "reasonably well-read"?

Linda Holmes observes, on NPR's website:

The vast majority of the world's books, music, films, television and art, you will never see. It's just numbers.

Consider books alone. Let's say you read two a week, and sometimes you take on a long one that takes you a whole week. That's quite a brisk pace for the average person. That lets you finish, let's say, 100 books a year. If we assume you start now, and you're 15, and you are willing to continue at this pace until you're 80. That's 6,500 books, which really sounds like a lot.

Let's do you another favor: Let's further assume you limit yourself to books from the last, say, 250 years. Nothing before 1761. This cuts out giant, enormous swaths of literature, of course, but we'll assume you're willing to write off thousands of years of writing in an effort to be reasonably well-read.

Of course, by the time you're 80, there will be 65 more years of new books, so by then, you're dealing with 315 years of books, which allows you to read about 20 books from each year. You'll have to break down your 20 books each year between fiction and nonfiction – you have to cover history, philosophy, essays, diaries, science, religion, science fiction, westerns, political theory ... I hope you weren't planning to go out very much.

You can hit the highlights, and you can specialize enough to become knowledgeable in some things, but most of what's out there, you'll have to ignore. (Don't forget books not written in English! Don't forget to learn all the other languages!) . . .

We could do the same calculus with film or music or, increasingly, television – you simply have no chance of seeing even most of what exists. Statistically speaking, you will die having missed almost everything.
That's a very quantitative way to look at it, as if the main thing that matters is what percentage of "everything" you've consumed. I don't see why that should be the standard.

It's analogous to the way people marvel at how "insignificant" humanity is because we're so small relative to the entire universe (which, by the way, would seem to imply that physically larger people are more important than smaller people — and surely we don't believe that). How big would we need to be in order to be "significant"? How much would we need to read, view, or listen to in order to be "well-read" or "cultured"?

Tyler Cowen's Discover Your Inner Economist offers a different way to look at this, which I find more meaningful. In the book's chapter on art, Cowen says we've become "cultural billionaires" — we just need to realize and take advantage of this fact. An overwhelming amount of great art is available to us for amazingly little money via libraries, museums, architecture (which you can see for free by walking down the street), Netflix, YouTube . . .

That doesn't solve the quantity problem. But we have so much access to such an astoundingly high level of quality that it would seem ungrateful to fuss over not having enough hours to get to most of it. We have enough time to live lives that are incredibly rich in literature and other art.

I happily admit there are whole genres of music that I consistently don't pay any attention to. "But that's so close-minded!" Well, it is and it isn't. I'm not making an objective judgment that these genres aren't worthwhile for anyone to spend time on. It's just that I, like everyone, have my own time management strategies. I've listened to Beethoven's symphonies a ridiculous number of times, always knowing there was some other piece of music I hadn't heard before, which I could have spent that time listening to . . . and I'll never hear it now. But I'm confident I've had good reasons for making such choices. I'm not worried I might be a little more ignorant of other musical genres, or novels I could have been reading at the time. I actually like the fact that I know much more about my own tastes than the vast majority of all content, of which I'm ignorant. This is part of the joy of life.

You wouldn't dream of trying to live in every city in the world, or even 10% of them, because that would mean you'd spend less time at home. Quality is more important than quantity.

The fact that everyone experiences such a limited number of books, paintings, songs, and cities adds to each individual's uniqueness. These experiences shape our identities. If we were all somehow able to read every book, and live in every city, we'd be much more similar to each other, and that would be really boring.

ADDED: Mindy Kaling has a related insight:
Don't worry about having perfect taste. People with perfectly curated taste usually have no original voice.


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Her most ridiculous assumption: that you'd want to divide your reading equally by year and subject. Second most ridiculous: that you have to read books written in English if you don't read the original languages. Are there people who really think that way, or is it just the usual cheap journalistic dodge?

Jason (the commenter) said...

I find it helpful to focus on avoiding reading/watching/listening to things that aren't worth my time. Yes, there are billions of cultural items out there, and most of them are crap.

If you can't walk out of a movie, can't put down a book without finishing it, then you are wasting your life.