Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Media Consumption, Culling, Surrender and First World Problems to Ponder

NPR has this column up on their site, and even those of you who think NPR is communist hogwash trash will find this article is not about that sort of thing at all.  The article is entitled The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We're Going To Miss Almost Everything.  Kind of lovely, that.  Written by a Linda Holmes.

Before reading any further, I kind of have to require that you read the article so I am not forced to repeat the words in the article too, too much.

I recall that in high school, a teacher discussed how Thomas Jefferson was a master of almost all the knowledge the world had to offer.  Languages.  Science.  Poetry.  History and Geography.  What have you, if a book offered it up, Jefferson bought the book and was able to recall and process the information.  "Of course," we were told, "there just wasn't that much to know back then."  Which, of course, I now realize is sort of a tall tale to explain how well-read Jefferson was, and to understand how he embraced lifelong learning as a passion (or, perhaps, his passion for knowledge is itself what drove him).

I didn't believe then that Jefferson truly knew "everything", and I often think back to that story as a sort of fantasy for bookworms, museum dwellers, hobbyists, etc...  (a) the mental capacity to absorb and comprehend whatever material is put in front of you and (b) such a limited amount of knowledge to even try to absorb that its possible to have learned all there is to learn in your culture, perhaps by the age of 50.

But that's a pretty damn high bar to qualify as "well read".

For the record, I don't consider myself well read.  My patience is short with books written prior to 1900.  Anything over 500 pages gives me a moment of pause.  The manner in which books are dealt with in K-12 education always felt unnatural and suspect.  It wasn't that I didn't or don't read.  I just think my AP English teacher broke me and my interest in reading a pre-assigned list of books one is supposed to read, and built in a lifelong aversion to approved literature.  This is not something I celebrate, by the way.  I'm kind of sad at all the things I will likely never read, because, seriously...  no.  I'm not going to read Tolstoy or likely ever James Joyce or any of a couple hundred books that bring joy to very smart people I like and admire.  I'm not in my 20's anymore, when I guess people read those books.  I bypassed college literature classes after comping out, and it didn't fit very well in my schedule then either for coursework or during my off hours where I could be found sitting in a movie theater or walking the aisles at the video store.

The article discusses mechanisms for dealing, either culling or surrendering.  And I think we all do a bit of both.

I recall being 18 and standing in Tower Records and having something akin to a panic attack as I realized "I will never hear 90% of the albums, and every time I buy one that's a thousand I didn't buy."  This was back when you had to buy music to hear it.  And so it goes.

I don't know very many people I would consider well read, even among people I know who read a lot of books.  I wish the article did more to talk about what the idea of being well-read even means in the 21st Century.  I don't know if I can buy the idea that Holmes states in her final sentences.
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.
Who does this describe?  I don't know this person.  I've never seen him or her.  Even the idea that a person cranks through 100 books in a year is almost laughable.  You may read several, but in 2007, 1 in 4 said they hadn't read any books in the previous year.  But I'm not sure that's something to get hung up on, exactly.  Even if someone reads 50 books in a year, is that time better spent if the books are lousy than if that person were reading newspapers, journal articles, etc...?  Does reading all of War and Peace carry the same weight as a David Sedaris airplane book?  What constitutes thoughtful exploration?  Where's the rubric for that?


Its the 21st Century.  We receive and process stories and information in packages that didn't exist 100 years ago.  If its fiction we're describing, does a book outweigh the value of a film at every turn (I'm the first to say it usually does)?  Longform television series?  And can't you have deep thoughts(tm) that come from these other media?  And if you don't, is it the media or the message?

We have limited time on this spinning space rock.  And we've all got our pet biases.  Of course I love comics.  And, firstly, 95% (or more) of the population will witness the walls of comics in my home, the crates of comics stored away and I cannot imagine anyone looking at me and judging me as well read.  I don't, but its not because I'm more likely to pick up Jimmy Olsen than finally @#$%ing finish Moby Dick.

As mentioned above, I was broken.  We all had assigned reading we hated.  Specifically, it was Tess of the D'Urbervilles that sort of pushed me over the edge into distrusting the idea of a prescribed set of books that may have been relevant 50, 75, 100 years prior, but sitting in a classroom in 1993, and seeing my instructor swoon in her personal infatuation with the book, but fail to convince me that the book wasn't some sort of masochistic victim porn.  "Why is this good?" I asked.  "Because people have loved it for generations" I was told.  "Its been assigned for generations," I said, "Of course you're always going to find somebody who likes everything.  I don't see how that makes it good.  Beverly Hills 90210 isn't 'good' and millions of people watch that."  "This isn't going to get you any closer to an 'A'" I was informed.  And so I shut up.

Of course genre fiction was trash.  And I loved it.  It brings me back to the question from over the weekend, of the possibly no-longer useful thinking employed in the NYT Game of Thrones review I mentioned.

But if I find something worth loving in Holmes' article, its the idea of surrender, which is something I occasionally espouse here, though I've never put a name on it.  I've just considered a zen* approach to dealing with the fact that there is too much to ever read, watch or listen to.  Just this week, I told some of your fellow Leaguers via email that I likely just wasn't going to read Ayn rand before I died.  It just wasn't on the bucket list.

You can actually see a version of the bucket list, by the way.  I keep it on a Google Site.  Its easier to manage if I keep a physical list of reminders, etc...  Would anything in that list lead you to believe I was "well read"?  Or was gaining understanding?  No.

Now, I am certain I cull.  I avoid romantic comedies, I won't read Harlequin Romance novels and I'll be honest... poetry is just beyond me.  I can't get my head around 95% of country music, and I generally avoid stagey, 3-camera sitcoms and sports talk television except during football season.

As per books...  you know, its hard to say.

But we all cull.  Its called personal taste or interest.  We all surrender.

I work in a building housing part of one of the finest libraries in the world.  The building I work in, a main campus library, is 6 stories and has a footprint about the size of just under a city block.  That building holds books on 4 of those floors, maps on one, and is one of about a dozen library buildings on campus.  And they really don't bother keeping much in the way of fiction in the library, I might add.

I have no idea what well read means.  Like everyone else, I wish I were smarter and had more information and insight at my fingertips.  But I am happy to be a part of curating and managing the wealth of human achievement as we move from dusty shelves to the digital beyond.

What choice is there but a happy surrender?

If there's been a central thesis to The Signal Watch and League of Melbotis before it, its been to try to rally a bit behind genre fiction in comics, books, movies, TV, et al., and try to make a case that this stuff has merit, that its part of the great possibilities.  It seemed like a small crack of insanity back in 2003, but in the short 8 years I've been doing this (and April marks the 8th anniversary), its been an amazing period of growth, co-option, adoption, transformation, diversity, etc... for the world of genre fiction.  If I've had any part in it, its just been to be a statistic of the number of blogs dedicated to these sorts of shenanigans, and these days, our numbers are legion.

So of course I'm biased.  But I also fully expect that a good number of readers have either culled the stuff I'm discussing right out of their options or they've done that surrender bit.  

But that's the way it is.  There's too much.  And I often feel badly, because you people are all right, and when you make suggestions as friends, its hard to just shrug and say "yeah, I'm probably never going to read that" and not make it sound like you're not a disrespectful jerk.  There's just a whole lot of stuff out there.

*certainly, I am misusing this word


Matt A. said...

Fortunately, you don't have to go far outside your comfort zone to read Joyce.


It's a really good comic adaptation of Ulysses.

Matt A. said...

And, yes, I realize this is missing the point of your well-thought out post. It's just the first thing that hit me when you mentioned Joyce.

From my standpoint, I don't think that the term "well-read" means as much as it used to. A hundred years ago, this meant that you knew (not necessarily read) the standard list of classics. If you weren't versed in those texts, other works (such as Milton's Paradise Lost) would make so many references that would be lost on you.

Some of this still applies today - for the stuff I read, it's pretty much a given that you've read a few oddball things like Lovecraft, Douglas Adams, or the Illiad. The same is true for most media that makes references that the writers expect the audience to know.

The League said...

I'm onboard with what you're saying, and I'd make three points here:

1) To some extent, that list of classics was managed by a limited production capability until the late 19th Century, and a limited number of folks educated enough to even care (or who had leisure time to read).

2) If we want to talk allusions, the world of TV and film have so deeply embedded that trick in their toolkit that it pays to be familiar with literally hundreds of films as directors, writers and creators constantly reference other works in everything from types of scenes to how a camera is handled to sound mixing.

3) That said, I'm always a bit wary of allusion when its used as mere namecheck.

J.S. said...

Yeah, the danger in culling is that it can drive you crazy or turn you in a pretentious snob with arbitrary tastes. The danger of surrender, in my opinion, is that a person can lose sight of the fact that some works MAY actually have more inherent value than others- more potential to be thought provoking, inspiring, and life enriching. (of course, this inevitably leads to an argument about whether any works have more value than any others, but I'm one of those people who would actually argue that the value of art is not entirely subjective and completely based on personal taste- I still tend to think that the value of art can be somewhat objective by basing its value upon relevant, logically sound arguments that can be made in support of a piece of art or against it).
All of this just to say that the middle ground feels right. The fact that you'll never get around to devouring every important piece of art or literature isn't really a strong argument for surrender when the most important thing is probably the effect that consumption has on the consumer. Just because you can't get around to reading or enjoying everything doesn't mean that you shouldn't try to steer yourself toward enriching your own life as much as you can (or at least broadening your experiences as much as you can) by efficitently utilizing the time that you DO have to consume art or literature. (The argument doesn't really logically follow that a person can't get to everything, so they shouldn't bother trying to appreciate the best of what's out there when they have the opportunity.)
I'm really tired. Maybe none of this is making sense.

The League said...

No, I think it makes total sense, and I wish I'd made the same point.

cardboardbelts said...

danger of culling: http://www.ifc.com/videos/portlandia-did-you-read.php

The League said...

Wow, yeah. Definitely been a witness to those conversations.

For good or ill, I rarely speak to anybody who reads the same stuff I do (its not esoteric, I just don't read the same books), so I rarely wind up in one of those conversations myself.

I can say: I've had great books recommended to me by way of those conversations. You can always tell when someone is name-checking versus when they really loved a book.

horus kemwer said...

Thought provoking post. Had too much to say in response, so I just put it here.

Simon Mac Donald said...

I consider myself a fairly "well read" person but I am guilty of culling a fair swath of genres. Right now I only read books that are in the following genres (not in any order):


I just don't have the time to step out of those zones. I had implemented a rotation schedule to keep myself from digging too deep into any one genre but I've fallen off the wagon a bit.

I'd love to branch out more but I don't have time to be an employee, father, husband, etc. and still get a lot of reading done. Anything outside those genres has to be from a recommendation from a person whose taste I trust.