I was just complaining on Twitter that I feel genuine and physiologically-palpable anxiety over the idea that there are so many Important Books that I’ve never gotten to, and likely never will. (Read more about my struggles with particular aspects of the Western Canon here.) Then Bill Boulden (@Spruke) pointed me to this piece at NPR by Linda Holmes on this very subject. This gist of it is that there’s always too much to get to, and being “well-read” is less about filling quotas and more about sincerely and actively exploring what human culture has produced. Good intentions, in other words.
She distinguishes between two ways of deciding what one will spend one’s time consuming:
Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time. It’s saying, “I deem Keeping Up With The Kardashians a poor use of my time, and therefore, I choose not to watch it.” It’s saying, “I read the last Jonathan Franzen book and fell asleep six times, so I’m not going to read this one.”
Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read. Surrender is the moment when you say, “I bet every single one of those 1,000 books I’m supposed to read before I die is very, very good, but I cannot read them all, and they will have to go on the list of things I didn’t get to.”
I get this, I do, but I’m not just hung up on he idea that, oh my gosh, there’s so much stuff to get to. I’m hung up on the idea that my failure to get to it all, or more specifically, my failure to get to all the Important Books, is my own fault.
I stopped paying attention in high school (get a sense of why here), and missed a lot of those books assigned in English class that everyone else read. As a result, I didn’t read Lord of the Flies, Great Expectations, or A Tale of Two Cities until a couple of years ago. I was supposed to back then, but I didn’t. (Two Cities is now among my favorite two or three novels ever.)
During time away from school, I was no better. I never read anything during summer vacations, and instead, during the breaks of middle school and the first half of high school, I let my brain rot on hours and hours and hours of relentless television. (In my defense, much of this was spent going through my dad’s Betamax tapes of Monty Python, Cosmos, Black Adder, and the like, but far, far too much of it was crap like music videos and god-awful sitcoms.) The second half of high school was still a lot of television, but also a little more music, guitar, and a little more social interaction with the few friends I had. But despite being a nerd, despite having no desire or talent for physical activity, I still almost never picked up a damn book.
I think it may even go back further in time. I recall being assigned a book report in second grade, and we were to choose the book ourselves. Imagine my dismay when, on the day we were to present our reports, all the other students had chosen honest-to-goodness novels for children, and I had picked some crummy Sesame Street picture book, just so I wouldn’t have to read something “hard.” That was a rough day.
Even into college, as a theatre major, I read mostly plays, and anyone who’s read plays knows that they’re an entirely different ball of wax when it comes to deep reading. Heck, I even found those to be too cumbersome (and again, in my defense, plays aren’t meant to be read anyway. Whoever thought it was a good idea that kids read Shakespeare before seeing and hearing it should be forced to memorize the phone book and perform it.)
Now I am a grownup, as it were, and back around 2001 or so when I was a working actor and had no TV of any kind and only a spotty connection to dial-up Internet, I rediscovered the joy of reading. Did I ever. But.
This utter lack of practice in the act of reading may have hobbled my ability somewhat to do it efficiently. I have never formally measured my speed, but certainly in comparison to literate friends, I seem to be dismally slow. (I’ve complained about this before as well.) Also, reading has a soporific effect on me, and given the fact that what little time I do have to read these days, what with my two noisy and exhausting children and whatnot, it’s usually not too many paragraphs in before I’m zonked.
In other words, I blew it. I had the chance to work my brain into a reading muscle, and I threw it away on TV and generally dicking around. And now I am scrambling to catch up. It’s futile, of course. I imagine that my Goodreads to-read list looks at me like an idiot, saying, “Surely, you can’t be serious.”
So this is where my anxiety comes from. I get that there’s simply too much Important Stuff out there to ever get to it all. But I feel like I can’t even scratch the surface. I can’t even graze it. And it’s because I blew it, and continue to blow it. I cull, and any surrendering I am doing is to my own self-loathing.
Holmes also talks about a certain kind of culling.
I see people culling by category, broadly and aggressively: television is not important, popular fiction is not important, blockbuster movies are not important. Don’t talk about rap; it’s not important. Don’t talk about anyone famous; it isn’t important. And by the way, don’t tell me it is important, because that would mean I’m ignoring something important, and that’s … uncomfortable. That’s surrender.
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.
I might cop to a version of this, but not entirely. Living without cable as I did way back when rejiggered my brain to find such a situation acceptable, and soon it became my norm. Since 2003 or so, whenever cable or commercial television has been reintroduced to me, I have a visceral response to how bad it usually is. How even the things we all rave about or consider better-than-crap is really, itself, crap. So I have developed a prejudice against the medium. I’m aware of it, and I admit it.
This is not to say there’s not a lot of TV that I don’t absolutely love. I still don’t have cable, but we do Netflix through Apple TV, and watch a lot of the good stuff once in a while. But with rare exceptions, there is almost never a time when even the best TV moves me or fulfills me as much as even just a “good” book does, let alone a great one. (Rare exceptions being things like The Wire, Star Trek TNG, and comedy like Monty Python and the Diane years of Cheers.)
But I always feel guilt when sitting through even very good television. Like time is being wasted on this passive medium* when I should be digging into one of those many, many Important Books. I’m sure some of that comes from my realization of the time wasted in my youth on TV, and now I’m overcompensating with a cultural hair shirt.
*Somehow in my own mind, I’ve carved an exception for nonfiction television, even if it’s something as light as video podcasts from the TWiT network. My brain has somehow decided that Game of Thrones is an indulgence I should feel bad about, but MacBreak Weekly is akin to reading the New York Times or something. I really am a mess.