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Culling and surrender
April 18, 2011 2:44 PM   Subscribe

The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We're All Going To Miss Almost Everything. The vast majority of the world's books, music, films, television and art, you will never see. It's just numbers.
posted by crossoverman (89 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thank God for Sturgeon's Law.
posted by Rhaomi at 2:47 PM on April 18, 2011 [8 favorites]


Tremendously sad, until you remember Sturgeon's Law.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:47 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Meh, for me It's about qualityof the experience not the quantity. I'd rather experience a good book slowly and carefully than speed read through the entire "canon".
posted by Omon Ra at 2:49 PM on April 18, 2011


Some one is owed a coke. I don't drink the stuff, so it must be you.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:49 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Thank God for Sturgeon's Law.

I think Sturgeon greatly underestimated the percentage of crap in the world.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 2:51 PM on April 18, 2011 [14 favorites]


It is what makes me so annoyed at people who've successfully urged me to read something by Dan Brown or Louis L'Amour. I could have spent that time reading something good.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:53 PM on April 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


All these blogs will ...be gone ...like tears in the rain.
posted by The Whelk at 2:57 PM on April 18, 2011 [23 favorites]


there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you're well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender

What about option C — not investing your ego in "feeling like you're well-read," because it's a fool's errand, and instead just enjoying reading and talking about books, and following your own interests, and getting on with your own intellectual life, by refusing to treat it as a pissing contest?
posted by RogerB at 2:57 PM on April 18, 2011 [54 favorites]


If "well-read" means "not missing anything," then nobody has a chance. If "well-read" means "making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully," then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we've seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can't change that.

I'm not sure why having a cup of water and realizing that there are also oceans out there would make me sad. I gave up a long time ago imagining that I could possibly know everything or read everything I ever wanted to read, and this was before the web. I always think of the Burgess Meredith character in the classic "Twilight Zone" episode who survives a nuclear holocaust and is overjoyed to discover that, with all humans vaporized, he has "time enough at last" to read any and every book he ever wanted to read. Then he bends over and drops and shatters his glasses and can't see any of the words he wants to read. Life is like that.
posted by blucevalo at 2:58 PM on April 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


Thank God for Sturgeon's Law.

The problem with Sturgeon's Law is the False Positive Paradox: De gustibus non est disputandum, in which some non-zero percentage of Sturgeon's Crap was actually pretty good.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:00 PM on April 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think we are well into a period where the idea of a canon of work that should universally be read has slipped into posterity. Instead art will become increasingly idiosyncratic, and reach a decreasing audience of very like-minded people, where certain niches will consist of only a dozen or so people. There may be no way to make a living in the arts this way, but, the truth is, for the vast majority of people, there already is no way to make a living in the arts, and that's the way it's been for all of time.

Still, it's balanced out by the costs of creating art dwindling to almost nothing, and the web making it possible to find an audience anywhere in the world. You're not going to get rick, but you won't go broke either, and you'll find an appreciative audience.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:13 PM on April 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


She says we're "going to miss almost everything." This is 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 peoplem -- 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"?

I prefer the more positive view expressed in one chapter of Tyler Cowen's book Discover Your Inner Economist. He 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 enough 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 haven't heard before that 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. As Omon Ra said, 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, live in every city, etc., we'd be much more similar to each other, which would get really boring.
posted by John Cohen at 3:17 PM on April 18, 2011 [15 favorites]


I'd miss it less if it would just say put (I'm looking at you, Google Video).
posted by filthy light thief at 3:19 PM on April 18, 2011


It's important to remember that Sturgeon's Law doesn't say that the top ten percent of everything is great.
posted by mhoye at 3:22 PM on April 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Not nearly as depressing once you consider the alternative.
posted by Halloween Jack at 3:29 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks to Hulu Plus having shit tons of Criterion films in their library, I hope to bring this number down.
posted by NoMich at 3:29 PM on April 18, 2011


Books, movies, art, music...this stuff is nice and all, but I'm not going to go to my grave crushed I wasn't able to see every Takashi Miike film, even though I love Takashi Miike. I might be bummed if, say, I didn't get to see the end of Breaking Bad or read the end of Ice and Fire, but I don't think I'd really be all that bummed. In the grand scheme of things, art is really just an enriching diversion, don't you think? I mean...maybe you don't think that, but I do. But I'll go to my grave wondering how things might have been different if X had lived, if Y had married me, if I'd gone to Timbiktu, if all kinds of things that aren't even necessarily good or bad...you know, just what if you'd done something else? Because plenty of experiences cancel each other out either through being mutually exclusive or via just that we don't have time to do every damn thing, you gotta pick and choose and hope for the best. I'll wish we could go back and take roads not taken. Just to see. I won't really care whether I got around to reading The Sorrows of Young Werther. I mean, sorry, Young Werther; nothing personal.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 3:31 PM on April 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


I disagree with the premise here. This implies that culture and experience are commodities that can be 'had'. The real presumption is that we do not have access to the ineffable character of things we have never seen, which is a denial of humanness or human nature. This is not right!

If you are worried about capturing the totality of experience, you are misguided and have probably let much experience slip past you in your quixotic conception. Focus on the moment, on what you are doing. Consider the thread of your interests, let that lead you onward.....The abstract "you" who has read all the books in the world is an illusion, an impossibility. Do not live your life measured by illusions!
posted by kuatto at 3:36 PM on April 18, 2011 [9 favorites]


It is what makes me so annoyed at people who've successfully urged me to read something by Dan Brown or Louis L'Amour. I could have spent that time reading something good.

Talking about Dan Brown in the context of crap writing is hardly fair to crap writing.
posted by kmz at 3:37 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


This gets to me. I just moved house and even in my tiny flat there are 50 movies I haven't watched. Games I gave away unplayed. Books I haven't read. And that's just in my little corner of interests. I work for a music website and it got so overwhelming I just retreated to the same dozen bands. But every time a new festival gets announced I freak out again.
I haven't even got into comics, which I stopped reading ages ago but still follow via blogs. I haven't even read Morrison's Batman! I haven't seen Breaking Bad or Deadwood.
I'VE NEVER PLAYED PORTAL OR BRAID

There's so much wonderful STUFF in the world - so many works of high and low and medium art - that sometimes I literally weep at the thought of how little of it I'll experience.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 3:38 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


> Thank God for Sturgeon's Law.

The problem with Sturgeon's Law is the False Positive Paradox: De gustibus non est disputandum, in which some non-zero percentage of Sturgeon's Crap was actually pretty good.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:00 PM on April 18 [+] [!]


I'd go with the problem with Sturgeon's Law isn't the False Positives, it is the False Negatives - the representation of crap as something pretty good - which a lot of it isn't. Its that even after you separate out the obviously bad, sure you're down to a lot less - but there are still ideas you are subject to and concepts and beliefs which holy crap - really aren't thinking about long term implications - and who is to say that the long term implication are even good.

As NoMich points out there are a shit ton of Criterion Classics on Hulu. At some point: Jackass will qualify as potential for a Criterion Classic - sure its not good film - but its good documentation of an anthropological social group's understanding of humor. Is it good? Well, by the standards that make The King's Speech, no - but the King's Speech was boring as all hell and couldn't hold my attention. I've seen 3 Jackass Movies. Someone did something wrong with The King's Speech. Likewise, I vaguely know Citizen Kane and I remember half paying attention to it - but who is to say that that's what I should watch or that it is representative of either good story or film or society or whatever. I know I'm certainly not qualified. Given enough time, people will think that Rosebud was what the kid in the Shining kept saying before he kissed Scarlet O'Hara. I'd still rather watch Jackass....

Anyways, back to my mediocre life of consumption of the wrong media and products.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:42 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I see neither sadness nor beauty in the fact that the reading capacity of one person is less than the writing capacity of [total number of humans for all of recorded history].

However, this essay did give a plausible reason for the holier-than-thou attitude of the sort of person who likes to brag about their lack of a television. So, I guess I won't think of them as trolls anymore. Just small-minded people. Some of whom are also trolls.

"Well-read" is one of those descriptors like "best-known" or "greatest" that doesn't make any sense unless you can assume a particular property or category--in this case, genre or subject--that the person in question is well-read in. Naturally, it's usually applied without consideration to the property or category, because the assumptions the speaker is making aren't something they want to discuss; that would be hard.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:45 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's about being a pissing contest so much as it is pain at surmising that there are sublime (or merely fun, or enjoyable) aesthetic experiences I will miss just because it isn't possible to catch them all.

I think this effect may be heightened nowadays because I am made aware of so many more things that sound really engaging thanks to the internet. That, and cascading effects from the people I know also being on the internet.
posted by everichon at 3:45 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The metaphor of the cup and ocean is striking but I remember reading that given the nature and amount of atoms, anytime you a drink a random cup of a water you'll be drinking something like a few hundred of the same atoms that passed through Socrates -- and the nature of Art is similar, almost everything is derivative and thus all the stuff you'll miss will probably be, more or less, more of the same. The trick of course is to find those original Masterpieces which transcend their derivative components to achieve something great and vital and such things are rightfully called Art, everything else is driftwood.

There is still a place for the canon, and there always will be (as long as there is a place for human nature), those who argue against are the great multitude enjoying those flickering shadows in the cave.
posted by Shit Parade at 3:50 PM on April 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


flagged as appropriate for MetaFilter.
posted by clearly at 3:50 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Who gives a damn about books and movies. Your never going to be the head of the communist party or a Pearl diver and probably aren't going to get to spend an hour with Queen of England asking her what it was like to live as the social superior of everyone you've ever met. I think all these crafted experiences you'll never get a chance to have pale in comparison to the unscripted and uncrafted experiences you'll never get to have.
posted by Rubbstone at 3:53 PM on April 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


Dilemma of Choice shouldn't cause so much paralysis. If you choose to spend the next hour pissing your life away reading Dostoevsky more power to you. If instead you choose to spend the next hour pissing your life away watching sports center and QVC - also more power to you. Stop feeling guilty or haughty about whatever you choose. You don't own a TV? Yay - more power to you - you just missed a free weekend of HBO - not that you care (but neither do I about your lack of a Television). You just rotted your brain on the same weekend, but managed to catch a documentary on Pee Wee Herman that you had wanted to see? Once again... more power to you.

Plenty of people here will tell you your favorite thing sucks and that you are pissing away your life. You might buy into it. Rather than feel guilty about it - commit to what you are doing and let yourself enjoy it. Own up to liking Howie Mandel or Dostoevsky - really take your pick - take both if you want - just spend your time doing something you enjoy.

And if you don't enjoy it? Stop.
posted by Nanukthedog at 3:55 PM on April 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


...Keeping my Netflix queue in perspective.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 4:02 PM on April 18, 2011


It's important to remember that Sturgeon's Law doesn't say that the top ten percent of everything is great.

How society decides what that ten percent is can cull a lot of great stuff.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:04 PM on April 18, 2011


Hmm. This is a super-weird experience, because I feel like I heartily agree with most of the people who strenuously disagree with what I wrote.

The point I was trying to make was that if you look at the concept of being well-read as a numbers problem and go for completeness and comprehensiveness, it's completely hopeless, so that's not a useful way to think about it. That's why the qualifying "Statistically speaking, you will die having missed almost everything." The point I was trying to make was that thinking about it as a statistics problem is the wrong approach, not that it's the right one.

So basically, yes to everyone -- yes, it's not a pissing contest. (Yes to that, especially.) Yes, love the things you love and relax. Yes, well-read only means anything if you qualify it with "in what?" Yes to this, very much:

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 enough of it. We have enough time to live lives that are incredibly rich in literature and other art.

This is EXACTLY what I think. You'll never get to all of it; it's a little sad to think about, but it's really okay. Is what I was trying to say, but not very clearly, obviously.

At any rate, I love this discussion, so if I biffed the point I was trying to make, I still like where y'all got to.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 4:12 PM on April 18, 2011 [10 favorites]


Louis L'Amour is good.
posted by cjorgensen at 4:13 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think all these crafted experiences you'll never get a chance to have pale in comparison to the unscripted and uncrafted experiences you'll never get to have.

On the other hand:

"An old story goes that Cimabue was struck with admiration when he saw the shepherd-boy, Giotto, sketching sheep. But, in the true biographies, it is never the sheep that inspire a Giotto with the love of painting; but, rather, his first sight of the paintings of a man like Cimabue. What makes the artist is that in his youth he was more deeply moved by his visual experience of works of art than by that of the things they represent--and perhaps of Nature as a whole." - Malraux, The Voices of Silence
posted by DaDaDaDave at 4:17 PM on April 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I have seen a baby monkey riding on a pig, what else can there be?
posted by briank at 4:26 PM on April 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


No worries. Together with the versions of me in parallel universes, I got it all covered.
posted by likeso at 4:31 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Aside from Sturgeon's law (including the partial fallacy that lies embedded within it), we often forget that we're "making" ourselves with technology. Relevant to this issue, we are part of an adaptive feedback loop that will someday enable human beings to scan, more data (for the moment, let's say that all art is a kind of data, without taking it too far beyond that to serve the purposes of a brief post). Someday, we're going to be operating at far beyond our current cognitive capacities. We still won't be able to know or see it all, but we will adapt - albeit slowly - to this onslaught of information, with "culture" a part of that information.

That said:

I like the way that William Blake puts it:

"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour."


In other words, it's all there, now, anyway - in a way.

Some years ago I lived in a very isolated place- in the foothills of the Shenandoah Mountains - miles from anything. One outside source of entertainment was a 10 mile drive on Saturday evenings to a little saloon, where I would dance the night away to a local band and share beers with locals. Many of those locals were illiterate; many were ignorant in a way that shocked me - as a result of their lack of education (which implies exposure to "books" movies" etc.). However, I also encountered many individuals who had paid attention to their lives - to their disappointments, tragedies, joys, etc. and learned from that; they carried with them a common wisdom that was wonderful to behold; I learned from those people, and I learned plenty. Among the things that I learned was that wisdom and happiness don't necessarily derive from having participated in the world of books, movies, etc.

Who knows? Maybe some people have a propensity to live that way, and "teach" other by their very life example. I don't know.

What I do know is that that experience was liberating for me, because until that time I thought that there was a higher wisdom to be had from a classical education and exposure to the cultural trappings of higher art, etc. What I learned was that there are other ways to accomplish wisdom and happiness in one's life.

Modern cognitive neuroscience is tending to bear out some of the things I learned in that experience. Wisdom and happiness are intertwined. Sure, it's great that one has just read Marcus Aurelius Meditations, or seen a great movie, or whatever.

A final note: Some years ago I visited the administrative offices of the Seattle Film Festival - one of the best of its kind in the US. I was shown a catalog of all the movies made that year, by country; it was printed in a fairly small font, in a book nearly as thick as a small municipal phone book. There were thousands of films represented in that catalog - what a revelation about how much "culture" I was missing - just movie culture!
posted by Vibrissae at 4:35 PM on April 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


On the other hand, you have more access to works of literature, music, and film than any other time in human history. You could have been a farmer on some forsaken part of Earth in the Middle Ages. You would know how to interact with people and how to farm.

Dry those tears. It's not that bad.
posted by lemuring at 4:36 PM on April 18, 2011


I realized that I forgot to include live music in my little rant. I'm not sure if it counts, but the fear of missing things is the same. I drive myself ragged going to three or four gigs a week and I always freak out when I miss something.

The article was actually really helpful. It's cool that so many of you have achieved some weird Zen calm thing but it was great to realize WHY my tastes have got so narrow. It's a way of helping me. I once skipped a Tunng concert because I thought it would be 'too dancey'. Listening to only middle of the road Springsteen-punk helps me make sense of the confusing music choices. Unfortunately, I don't have the same filter with other media. Though I do mostly only read pre-1980 pulp sci-fi and play games recommended to me by SelectButton. I pretty much skip movies and TV altogether. Not out of snobbery but again out of time.

And even WITH those limits there's so much I'm missing!
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:43 PM on April 18, 2011


I think we are well into a period where the idea of a canon of work that should universally be read has slipped into posterity.

I think it depended on the meaning of universally. For which read, People Like Us back in the day when the idea of a canon was conceived.

Fun game along the lines of truth or dare among certain secure liberal arts professorial types I once knew was to admit what Great Works they had never, well, um, actually read. So the English professor who never quite around to Hamlet, the philosopher who knew of Plato's republic, the classicist who never got around to Vergil's Aeneid - you get the idea.

Best played after a whole bunch of drinks, of course.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:45 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Linda Holmes, I really enjoyed the article, I don't own a TV and read about 100 books a year (you had me in mind). There's a certain anxiety about the unread book/author, which can be a great motivational force to keep reading. I accept each book is as unique as the author, and that I will never get to know every book written, just as I'll never know every person in the world. In the end it's about be grateful for what you have, and not worrying about what you don't. This is the challenge of our time, when so many things are so easily available.
posted by stbalbach at 4:50 PM on April 18, 2011


This was a large part of the fluid longing that filled the well of anxiety for me for many years. Life's short, the world's enormous, and there are experiences that need to be had. There's just so much of everything, so much that you get paralyzed by the fear that you're missing out, and you start curating your life, trying to sort out the best of it ensure the impossible.

Why is there so much amazing music in the world?

The names rise and fall. The genres appear in the surf, struggle to the beach, and stagger your way, turning into one marvelous creature after another. Spines sprout jagged digital spikes, hearts get bigger, deeper, and turn to dub, merging with the myriad scales on claws scaling the rocks at the water's edge. You can't keep up, and you can hardly begin to name these glorious monsters before you're clattering around among their bones. They stampede and stay back, swirling waves of them congealing and erupting, set to trample you just when you feel like you can keep up. The exhilaration comes in the running, the satisfaction in the moments of repose, where it all slows down just enough, just enough to let you feel like you're among animals like yourself. It seems like there's never time enough.

Still, you listen to The Rite of Spring for the thousandth time, in the thousandth rendition, and that raging, delicate, visceral voice is always speaking to you, always telling you something new, even as it rewards your drive for returning, calling you back to the pool, over and over. You queue up The Dreaming and it is still so there for you, just like it was for you at fourteen, when you sat in a dark room, tethered to your Panasonic turntable with a coiled cord and headphones with cups the size of tuna cans, hearing something simultaneously alien and internal, like the voices that had been singing in your head, just below the threshold of hearing, from the moment you were born.

When will I stop buying books, which already threaten to bury me?

You pluck an untouched volume out of a wobbly stack that's growing at the periphery of your overloaded bookshelves, tuck it into your knapsack, and head for the morning train. On board, the world rolls by unnoticed, while you're racing through the fresh landscape of the Wodehouse you never read, laughing and making mental notes and swearing that you'll write something half as good as this one day and be proud. You page back and forth, caught up in the play and the lightness of the author's touch, and you have to keep asking yourself, almost out loud, "this was written in 1919?" because it's just so very here, vagaries of the nearly extinct upper classes of Britain notwithstanding.

When you think of how much is still out there, the weight of loss can be overwhelming. You won't read a fraction of what's there in your own little municipal branch library. You won't, and you can't. You're rolling a rock up a hill, and losing it each time.

Why is there so much to see, and so little me?

When my father died, I felt sorry for him, more than I felt sorry for myself. All those dreams and desires left hanging, all the projects left hanging—just everything, just everything. I felt sorry for him, and I felt that loss in a strange way, where I felt like I needed to step up my game, to make sure the same thing wouldn't happen to me, in case I folded up in my office chair with the newspaper spread over my desk and a cup of coffee steaming in my favorite mug. There was a flurry of lists, of curation, of careful selection.

What's important, and what's not important?

The trouble is, thinking about this sort of thing ensures you'll miss even more. You'll miss more, and you'll miss opportunities to just happen upon miraculous things, because you end up working so hard not to miss things. We invent things like "bucket lists" and "desert island" collections and "101 must-see" experiences, and they're just checklists, just basic accounting for the sensitive soul, but do they sustain our soul or just satisfy our insatiable inner bookkeeper?

Your dreams will not all come true.

I keep finding myself acting out curious scripts, finding myself caught up dancing to music that only I hear, and I'll stop and realize I'm trying to finish my father's remaining goals, or to accomplish the things my grandmother would have wanted to do, had she had the resources. I catch myself, and it's that constant moment of rebirth, in the way that walking is falling and catching yourself from falling, over and over. The delusions of quality and of achievement fall into us like a slow, misty rain, and we've got to spit that out, because it blinds us to the single best experience we can have as humans.

I am right here, right now. I will miss out on reading the greatest works of Rabindranath Tagore in Bengali. I will miss out on hearing a gamelan orchestra reach the instant of perfect rhythmic interplay in the years before those instruments could be recorded. I'll never experience courtly Japanese theater in context, or feel what it's like to be in freefall, looking down on the world. Unless something unlikely happens, I'll never make out with Abraham Benrubi, and unless I hit the lottery or find a particularly generous sugar daddy, I'll probably never set foot on Borobudur.

I will die, frustrated and sad, and that is beautiful, except it truly is beautiful, because I am a simple, limited person who will never have had to suffer from the deprivation of a cultural drought. I'm just me, just here. If I continue to cultivate loving friends, family, and mates, the diversity of those joyous bonds will feed me.

My friend Dan will send me an note on a social networking site introducing me to some insane German prog band who only made one album before the lead singer was hit by a train. My ex Paul will point out that I'm being a big snob about biographies and will lend me a book about an obscure historical figure that'll shake my presumptions. My mother will stand beside me in the Cone Collection and will point out a color in one of Matisse cut-outs that will just make me hold my breath for a moment, and then say "oh my." My it's-complicated will invite me to a fancy Hollywood party where I will be able to gushingly thank Jo Anne Worley for inspiring me, and where I can keep bringing drinks to Abraham Benrubi 'cause, well, you know, sometimes you just have to do your best.

In return, I'll share my fanatical love of Porgy and Bess, Chuang Tzu, and the surprisingly good jazz work of Dudley Moore, and I'll keep happily lending out copies of Flatland and the trashy crime novels of Delacorta without expected to get them back. I'll give away the lessons I've learned, because they really only have any value when you do. What Tati taught me is something I have to share, or it's meaningless—a selfish prize.

I'll miss out on most of the wonder of the world, but I've got libraries that'll always be full of new things, and the expanding infinite of the internet, and that's okay.

Sometimes, I'll sit back and listen to something I've downloaded from the Avant Garde Project (Which I was hoping to share with everyone, but when I went for the link, it's been shut down by its curator, to my horror.), or I'll sit back and play Steve Miller and imagine making out with some burly actor to the tune of "Wild Mountain Honey."

I used to get frustrating, when I was making music, with the erratic behavior and limitations of the digital sampling keyboard I was using, and while I was working with a wise friend, recording a piece for theremin, steam iron, and sampled percussion, I complained that I just felt limited by my little studio.

"Boo hoo, Joe. 'The Earth is my prison!'," he observed, with a mocking sneer, and he was right. The world is, for all intents and purposes, limitless, and we aren't. How we view that, as a horrendous prison of impossibility or a reality in which we'll never know scarcity, makes all the difference.

I'll miss out on the world, so I have to be sure not to miss what's right in front of me.
posted by sonascope at 4:51 PM on April 18, 2011 [25 favorites]


Fun game along the lines of truth or dare among certain secure liberal arts professorial types I once knew was to admit what Great Works they had never, well, um, actually read. So the English professor who never quite around to Hamlet

This game ("Humiliation"), and the English professor who's never read Hamlet, are actually from a David Lodge novel.
posted by RogerB at 4:52 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I drive myself ragged going to three or four gigs a week and I always freak out when I miss something.

This is me, she said, looking at her calendar over the next couple of weeks. This is also why I don't have cable. Netflix is cheaper and supplies me with more television and movies than I can watch as it is. I don't need always-on access to everything else. Culling isn't a bad thing if you don't do it to feel superior; it's just a method of restricting the firehose to a drinkable stream.
posted by immlass at 5:08 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I went through a phase that lasted about two years in which I didn't read any fiction at all, simply because it seemed to me that any moderate effort to read the worthwhile writing out there, old and new, would be a futile exercise given the embarrassment of riches to be found in even the tiniest corner bookshop, and the inarguable fact that no mortal reader could ever hope to get through more than a tiny fraction of it.

Fortunately, I got past that particular hang-up.
posted by killdevil at 5:11 PM on April 18, 2011


But can you play the taste of a peach?
posted by LogicalDash at 5:25 PM on April 18, 2011


We should stop lamenting the booms we left unread and the adventures we could of had. Instead celebrate every moment including those spent doing nothing. Days spent idly staring I to space, neither dreaming nor giving a shit. There is a great in luxury having nothing particular to do. Don't rage against te dying of the light, don't gather rosebuds or smell the flowers. Tune it out for a minute and be totally selfish. Let it go. It didn't matter.

Also why the sorrow. It is like a truck pulled up with free cake. Unlimited cakes, in every flavor take all you want and the truck isn't going anywhere. And you hear someone sobbing about how sad they are that they can't eat all the cake. WTF bitch you got free cake, not that you need it lardass, so stuff you cake hole and quit spoiling the free cake party. Seriously what is wrong with you. I can't believe I stopped eating this free cake to listen to you. Well actually that not true because the only I like more than free cake is telling people how ridiculous their made up problems are and calling them a dumbass to their face. This is because I'm an enourmous dorky nerd, mostly because of all this free cake. Sorry I case you a lardass, here have some cake.
posted by humanfont at 5:33 PM on April 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


But can you play the taste of a peach?

I'm sure some designer is working on it.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:33 PM on April 18, 2011


I won't really care whether I got around to reading The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Let me recommend it, if only for an insight into one of the West's earliest tortured bad boys. It's fun, and short; you can read it in an afternoon or two.

I'd rather experience a good book slowly and carefully than speed read through the entire "canon".

And I'd rather experience an entire "canon" slowly. Anecdotally, not long ago I learned about Mateiu Caragiale. Romanian critics regard Caragiale's novel Craii de Curtea-Veche as the best Romanian novel of the twentieth century, yet as far as I can tell, none of Caragiale's work has been translated into English. I'll probably never read it. Or any of his work. There are whole literary, musical, visual ecologies of which I will die ignorant, less than ignorant, even. (Not to mention areas of human endeavor of which I've never even managed to cultivate an interest.)

Now I'm not so naive to believe that knowing, or experiencing, any of what I'll inevitably miss would necessarily make me a happier, or a kinder, or a more useful person, but it isn't to say it might not, either. I'll never know. If that isn't an occasion for at least a little anguish, then you are a much more enlightened person than I am.
posted by octobersurprise at 5:40 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The head of the author of this piece would completely explode into a fine mist of smithereen if she were to smoke a joint and stare into the night sky.

'Cause that's really, like, a LOT of sky up there, y'know?

*inhales, holds it*
posted by Sys Rq at 5:46 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


octobersurprise, I think the terms of the question are rather askew in a sense. To me the pleasure that's to be found in books is not the accumulation, it's the experience. Viewing something as accumulation, as checkmarks on a list kind of cheapens the whole thing for me.

As an analogy (and this is just sort of how I view it). A close experience of any art is like achieving a kind of spiritual grace; but the anxiety that the article describes seems to be the anxiety of not being able to visit every church in the world.
posted by Omon Ra at 5:51 PM on April 18, 2011


In short, if I have grace, why would I care If I don't have the postcard.
posted by Omon Ra at 5:54 PM on April 18, 2011


Yes, it's sad, until you remember Rule 34.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:10 PM on April 18, 2011


You would know how to interact with people and how to farm

To be fair, people like that knew a lot more than we think they knew. They knew in excruciating detail the elements of the natural environment, the time and season and use of thousands of plants, the climate and weather signals sent by flower blooming or seedpod ripening or animals mating. They knew tremendous bodies of oral literature and song. They knew how to make a lot of things, and had a mastery of basic mechanics that is far beyond most of us today. They knew animal husbandry, the preservation and storage of perishable foods so as to make it last for months or years, and the life histories of everyone in their lives, in great detail. And more. I have spent enough time in traditional communities, and communities where some of these kinds of skills survived or where the evidence survived , to think that the knowledge of the people of the past was limited in breadth or depth.

It's not that we have a capacity for more information. I doubt we do, and I doubt it will expand much. IT's just that in the past, the information people mastered was about different things - the things that were at hand. The capacity to learn and be entertained was there, the curiosity and memory skills were there, but the body of information was just different.
posted by Miko at 6:12 PM on April 18, 2011 [8 favorites]


To me the pleasure that's to be found in books is not the accumulation, it's the experience.

Are you content to read only one book, over and over, simply for the experience? I envy your saintliness, if you are. If you aren't, if every aesthetic experience is something different, then why shouldn't you want to have as many as possible? And why shouldn't you feel some regret when you contemplate the ones you'll never have?

if I have grace, why would I care If I don't have the postcard.

Well, If you have grace, you are a very, very lucky person.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:13 PM on April 18, 2011


Well, If you have grace, you are a very, very lucky person.

I'm not saying just one book, but... see I've been reading Proust for the past six months... very very closely; up to the point of going to see a play (Phedre) mentioned in one of the passages, and looking up every plant mentioned in the thing. It's been quite an adventure. But it's been worth it only because I've been taking a lot time with each sentence. I could have raced through it, and been done with it, and read a bunch of other books in between. But frankly I don't think I would have enjoyed the thing even half as much. I feel like I'm truly experiencing the book (two volumes to go). And that by itself, in my case, negates the other anxiety.
posted by Omon Ra at 6:23 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's not that we have a capacity for more information. I doubt we do, and I doubt it will expand much. IT's just that in the past, the information people mastered was about different things - the things that were at hand. The capacity to learn and be entertained was there, the curiosity and memory skills were there, but the body of information was just different.

I have the ability to construct my life using narratives I borrow from other people. It's supremely useless.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:25 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's supremely useless.

Unless you're a novelist, journalist, filmmaker, psychologist, minister, artist, politician, strategist, or just plain curious about other people.
posted by Miko at 6:35 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


When the only measures of culture are the quantity and facility of consumption, then of course you will miss most of what matters.

To me the value of culture is the ability to share what I find with others, to follow the leads that people I respect have opened for me, and to be able to similarly offer promising leads to others. All the readers and listeners and watchers are painting a mural together which we can call our culture, while the artists keep us supplied with paint. We build on the outlines and the beginnings of those before us.

We don't miss most of what matters: it only matters because we found it, assimilated it, shared it, actively made something of it as an audience.
posted by idiopath at 6:38 PM on April 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


I was just thinking about this idea of whether or not one's reading habits are building towards any sort of larger canon. I know when I was younger it was more important to me to read things I thought I should read, and in more recent years I've been much more in "surrender" mode. But the other day I was reading that new book of Julia Child letters (very fun) and at one point Child is rhapsodizing about how she's discovered Balzac and he's amazing. And it occurred to me that at some point I stopped assuming that I would someday read Balzac (or Proust) - or more than that, that I unconsciously started assuming I wouldn't - and that's not really necessary; maybe it would be fun to bring a little bit of canon back into my reading habits.
posted by yarrow at 7:02 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is I why don't understand people who say they're scared of immortality because they'd get bored or something.

Maybe eventually too full of brokenheartedness to cope. But boredom? I'll tell you what, my biggest problem with the proverbial rainy Sunday afternoons is picking a bite from the sheer buffet.
posted by weston at 7:20 PM on April 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is one of the things that I love about the world: No matter how many stories I read, movies I watch, songs I hear, or foods I taste, there is always more to be discovered. How much sadder would it be if all the good things in the world could be enjoyed in a single lifetime?
posted by JDHarper at 7:36 PM on April 18, 2011


The problem is that it does lead to these little personal canon-forming behaviors, and I'm not sure how to break out of them. It seems the older I get the more narrow my canons get. And strangely enough they're different for each medium, and never seem to match up.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:42 PM on April 18, 2011


It seems the older I get the more narrow my canons get.

Is that a Joan Rivers line?
posted by Sys Rq at 7:59 PM on April 18, 2011


I had a friend who collected obscure/budget vinyl records (uh, more than I did). He was evangelical about an odd inverse of Sturgeon's law, which is: %10 of all crap is potential genius. (Not that ten percent of any pile of records is good, but that every awful record could have one beautiful track on it, if appreciated in the proper context).

It was a compelling argument, and if you observed very closely it turned into a sort of molecular biochemistry; every time you increased the resolution, new details emerged.
posted by ovvl at 8:08 PM on April 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


1 - this is what the tibetan buddhists describe as hungry ghosts - big mouths that can eat anything but narrow necks that cannot swallow much

2 - as much as i want to read and hear things, i'm more concerned over what i'm going to create - or not create

3 - i sat 10 feet in front of john lee hooker in his chair at the san francisco blues festival, no one between us - it was just ok at first - and then IT happened - and i saw what real music in the moment, not to mention the boogie, was all about

believe me, that makes up for ALL the bands i've missed, including the grateful dead
posted by pyramid termite at 8:38 PM on April 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


The head of the author of this piece would completely explode into a fine mist of smithereen if she were to smoke a joint and stare into the night sky.

'Cause that's really, like, a LOT of sky up there, y'know?


That's why I hardly every look up at the night sky anymore, and always try to keep the lights on. All that UNIVERSE - all that EMPTY SPACE - just freaks me out. Happened the first time I saw the ocean too. No pot needed. There's SO MUCH OUT THERE that ISN'T ME and it's frightening.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 9:11 PM on April 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow. I wasn't expecting such a beautiful article. I love the charity implicit in explaining our differing choices, and dismissal of various genres and media, as adaptive mechanisms.

Instead art will become increasingly idiosyncratic, and reach a decreasing audience of very like-minded people.

Which is kind of like how it was for the thousands of centuries when people couldn't travel a thousand miles in a matter of hours; when they couldn't phone a relative on the other side of the world.

I don't know if monoculture would be better or worse than diversity of culture. It seems like it's got some strengths and weaknesses. But it does seem that monoculture is impossible. With enough people creating, there are no longer enough people capable of absorbing all of it. So we splinter; cultures become sub-cultures, and sub-cultures become cultures.
posted by nathan v at 9:19 PM on April 18, 2011


This game ("Humiliation"), and the English professor who's never read Hamlet, are actually from a David Lodge novel.

Never read it.

Too little time.
posted by joe lisboa at 10:57 PM on April 18, 2011


I don't know if monoculture would be better or worse than diversity of culture. It seems like it's got some strengths and weaknesses. But it does seem that monoculture is impossible. With enough people creating, there are no longer enough people capable of absorbing all of it. So we splinter; cultures become sub-cultures, and sub-cultures become cultures.

What's strange and wonderful is that everybody ends up having their own canon, and every subculture splinters into a zillion little microcultures. You're not going to find two people who agree on even half the stuff, even within the same subculture. You get weird microniches.

There was just an AskMe question about 70s style psychedelic sci-fi and with it the weird recognition that 'yes! there is someone else who shres the same super-specific criteria I have'.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 11:30 PM on April 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


What's strange and wonderful is that everybody ends up having their own canon, and every subculture splinters into a zillion little microcultures. You're not going to find two people who agree on even half the stuff, even within the same subculture. You get weird microniches.

The history of globalization, and of mass media/the Internet, is about a lot of people scared of universal assimilation; and in a lot of ways, fears have been justified. For how many people is English now a native language? No data that I've the motivation to find, but I'm thinking more than fifty years ago. So it's not like this is working in only one direction. Cultures aren't just emerging; they're disappearing too. But what this article makes me think about, is how there's a limit to how much/many can disappear.

It's easy to see the world's cultures as exploding in number, especially for us internet-folk, and it's easy to see the world's cultures as shrinking, coalescing, especially for the get-off-my-lawn-folk, and it's really hard to talk about, because there's no line to be drawn to divide cultures, to quantify them. But looking at them in the short term isn't the same as looking at them in the long term. How big were cultures fifty years ago? How big were cultures fifty thousand years ago? How many books were there to read (or legends to learn), how many songs or poems, how many icons?

Wasn't there a time when this wasn't true? When everything one might be able to appreciate was appreciable? Even though there were distant, impossibly removed cultures, cultures with a different canon?

Is the future of culture less about Bonsnians vs Serbians and more about opera fans vs rap fans?
posted by nathan v at 12:20 AM on April 19, 2011


Is the future of culture less about Bonsnians vs Serbians and more about opera fans vs rap fans?

I've got a half finished script that's about a literal war between rock and dance music fans. It's all done pretty cartoonishly, but I was half-serious when I wrote it. 'Course, I've got the punks and the metalheads and the classic rock guys and the country rockers on the same side, 'cause that's how Sydney is now. Back 30 years ago some version of me woulda written it as punks vs metalheads.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 12:27 AM on April 19, 2011


I've got a half finished script that's about a literal war between rock and dance music fans. It's all done pretty cartoonishly, but I was half-serious when I wrote it. 'Course, I've got the punks and the metalheads and the classic rock guys and the country rockers on the same side, 'cause that's how Sydney is now. Back 30 years ago some version of me woulda written it as punks vs metalheads.

Still beaten to the punch, I'm afraid. You seem to have written Quadrophenia in the style of The Warriors.

(Both well worth your time, incidentally.)
posted by Sys Rq at 12:56 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Still beaten to the punch, I'm afraid. You seem to have written Quadrophenia in the style of The Warriors.

I'd still watch it.
posted by Spatch at 3:08 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I used to create these lists and try and be methodical about curating/reading the very best, but it was just so tiring.
Now I read/watch/listen to whatever makes me happy and appreciate life. I fret less and although I'm not in a state of grace, the angst about all the stuff that's out there is gone.
posted by arcticseal at 4:00 AM on April 19, 2011


This is one of the reasons I started my mp3 blog. The idea was that is just SO MUCH amazing music out there, it doesn't realy matter if you fall behind, there will always be a vibrant selection of amazing new things rising to the top to discover.

With work, one can survey a huge swathe of the critically appreciated history of recorded sounds in their lifetime.
And we can still probably enjoy the best of film achievements within our lifetime. (for each generation, the hope of this becomes more and more distant...)

And with things like Google Art Project, which will make digital museums and galleries more prevalent (hopefully), it will become much easier to consume the history of painting and sculpture.


As for books... arrr that's a challenge I long gave up on. I find it difficult to finish a few, let alone cover the classics and essential reads.
posted by Theta States at 7:35 AM on April 19, 2011


Quality of experience counts as much as quantity. There is a difference between living in the moment, and living for the moment.

Breathe.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:26 AM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd still watch it.

I would too, FWiW.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:56 PM on April 19, 2011


I always think of the Burgess Meredith character in the classic "Twilight Zone" episode

Shit! *adds Twilight Zone to his list*
posted by Harry at 3:10 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


We're All Going To Miss Almost Everything.

If you put us all together, we won't miss a thing.

MetaFilter: WTF bitch you got free cake
posted by mrgrimm at 3:14 PM on April 19, 2011


This is one of the reasons I started my mp3 blog. The idea was that is just SO MUCH amazing music out there, it doesn't realy matter if you fall behind, there will always be a vibrant selection of amazing new things rising to the top to discover.

Everytime I think there's no new good music to discover, I wander over to NNOP's Netvibes.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:41 PM on April 19, 2011


tl;dr

Ooo, Jersey Shore rerun's on.
posted by intelligentless at 4:31 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Still beaten to the punch, I'm afraid. You seem to have written Quadrophenia in the style of The Warriors.

(Both well worth your time, incidentally.)


Mix in a bit of Scott Pilgrim, which is strange as I was writing it before I saw Scott Pilgrim. And some Streets of Fire.
Maybe I should finish the damn thing.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:37 PM on April 19, 2011


But if you're busy creating, when will you have time for all the consuming you're supposed to be doing???
posted by Sys Rq at 4:40 PM on April 19, 2011


I sit and write and dream of the day when I can read the top ten best top ten lists online.
posted by The Whelk at 5:07 PM on April 19, 2011


Lester Bangs' Basement
What it means to have all music instantly available.


But if you're busy creating, when will you have time for all the consuming you're supposed to be doing???

I'm too busy consuming to create
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:13 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Compounding and complicating the dichotomy between "culling" and "surrendering" is the thought that we perform this selection within a pre-determined canon (a term I use loosely), formed by the kind of winnowing (or culling, as the case may be) the article describes, only enacted by rather opaque historical forces. Franco Moretti wrote a piece called "The Slaughterhouse of Literature" that argues that this culling/canon formation is the product of an "information cascade," in which consumers on a very large scale mutually reinforce and reify the choices that others have made before them. As a result, which works survive and which are relegated to obscurity can be mapped along the lines of an evolutionary tree, with its requisite dead ends and punctuated equilibria. He tells us that "the history of the world is the slaughterhouse of the world, reads a famous Hegelian aphorism; and of literature. The majority of books disappear forever--and 'majority' actually misses the point: if we set today's canon of nineteenth-century British novels at two hundred titles (which is a very high figure), they would still be only about 0.5 percent of all published novels." Extrapolate this to other genres and media beyond the novel, and the entire undifferentiated mass of artistic production looms paralyzingly before our grossly insufficient ability to engage it.

The point of all this digressing is that the aesthetic choices that we make as consumers are already occurring upon a playing field so narrowed, so much already determined by the precedents set by previous consumers, that anything other than total surrender seems to be the result of a kind of befuddling hubris. As George Eliot tells us in Middlemarch, "Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse; for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play as if they were so many animated tax-pennies, a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom."
posted by myownlostrib at 7:47 PM on April 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Everytime I think there's no new good music to discover...

Any time I ever come close to thinking "there is no good ", I quickly realize how foolish I must be and immediately google "my favourite ", and swim endlessly in through crowdsourced favourites.
posted by Theta States at 8:48 PM on April 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lester Bangs' Basement
What it means to have all music instantly available.


That was pretty good, but I think there is all kinds of music that will continue to be "rare" for the foreseeable future.

"I've always collected live albums, but I've never been able to find a digital copy Rod Stewart and the Faces' 1974 live effort, Coast to Coast: Overture and Beginners, for example. It was a fairly noted album at the time, as major-act live sets often were in the '70s, and was apparently released on CD out of Japan at some point, but interest in it seems to be absent on the file-sharing networks. It's available on CD or LP on eBay, for a price. I asked Capt. Willard if he'd ever seen it; he told me I just hadn't been searching for it correctly."

I was going to say, "He didn't answer the question!" but I guess he did.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:32 PM on April 20, 2011


But if you're busy creating, when will you have time for all the consuming you're supposed to be doing???

If you're busy creating, you're part of the damned problem. Stop being so creative!
posted by arcticseal at 12:18 AM on April 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problem with Sturgeon's Law is the False Positive Paradox: De gustibus non est disputandum, in which some non-zero percentage of Sturgeon's Crap was actually pretty good.

I'll note pedantically that Sturgeon never identified which 90% was the crap, and his review column has been criticized for only saying whatever nice things he could come up with to say about the books he reviewed.
posted by Zed at 1:45 PM on April 21, 2011


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