The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything

April 21, 2011

There’s an obscene amount to do, see, read, hear and watch out there. There’s so much, in fact, that there’s no way one will do everything.

Linda Holmes wrote a great piece on NPR about this.

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.

This overabundance is a blessing, really. It retains a childlike zest for acquiring information inside of us. It keeps life fresh and mysterious.

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.

Holmes proposes that there are two methods for weeding through this overabundant world, culling and surrender:

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.

She further expounds on these methods of navigation:

It’s an effort, I think, to make the world smaller and easier to manage, to make the awareness of what we’re missing less painful. There are people who choose not to watch television – and plenty of people don’t, and good for them – who find it easier to declare that they don’t watch television because there is no good television (which is culling) than to say they choose to do other things, but acknowledge that they’re missing out on Mad Men (which is surrender).

Read the whole article, here: www.npr.org

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