So Much to Read, How to Cope

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25 April 2011

A nice piece by Linda Homes at NPR (thanks to Jane for passing along) about the anxiety many of us have these days re: “so much to read, so little time.”  She makes the argument that the sadness we feel about “what we’re missing,” because there’s just too much good stuff out there, is also a beautiful thing; and that we should resist “culling,” which is her term for coping with the volume of choices by mentally eliminating entire categories of art from our “worthwhile” list.

Culling is easy; it implies a huge amount of control and mastery. Surrender, on the other hand, is a little sad. That’s the moment you realize you’re separated from so much. That’s your moment of understanding that you’ll miss most of the music and the dancing and the art and the books and the films that there have ever been and ever will be, and right now, there’s something being performed somewhere in the world that you’re not seeing that you would love.

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 “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.

And here’s an interesting response in the comments from someone who disagrees, who thinks generalism is a waste of time:

Endeavor to contribute in your special way, and humanity grows. It’s a fools errand to personally know all knowledge. It’s a liars ruse if one claims to know all. Furthermore, if you knew and could do all, there would be scant appreciation for those that excel at only a few things. Would the great artists, architects and leaders be useful if all were as capable?

I have to admit that I have culling tendencies; though I’d like to think that I cull in a thoughtful way, as opposed to a dismissive one.  In other words, in my experience, culling is not easy, it means developing priorities based on an aesthetic and/or personal value system that’s idiosyncratic by virtue of having formed over time.  It also recognizes reality; I can’t know or do everything, so I’ll work on what I can.  I trust the people who are gifted otherwise to cover those areas, while I cover mine.  Be master of such as you have, is how Barry Hannah put it.  Perhaps the compromise is that the culling process works best when it’s evolving and organic.  Tomorrow I may evolve into, say, an Italian film enthusiast; but only if I’m open to it.

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