I am a blip. So are you. And everyone you know and everyone they know — all blips in the wide spectrum of time and space.
I was reminded of this — my infinitesimal nature — last week, unexpectedly, when I came across Linda Holmes’ excellent, plainly written NPR.com piece “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re Going to Miss Almost Everything.”
Holmes lays bare a reality that would make any librarian or cinephile shift uncomfortably in his seat: Never, no matter how hard you try, will you — or can you — keep up with culture. No matter how cultured you think you might be — you’re not.
It’s in the math: She argues that if you read one book per week from the time you’re 15 years old until you are in your 80s, you could never possibly read all of the great books. Because by the time you’re 80, there will be hundreds — even thousands — of new works that you haven’t read yet, either.
Great art keeps coming — and you can never, ever catch up.
There are hundreds of thousands of books, albums, films, shows, plays, ballets and painters out there. Some people — she calls them cullers — simply figure out which ones of those things are worth their time. She gives an example: A culler might say, “I deem Keeping Up With The Kardashians a poor use of my time, and therefore, I choose not to watch it.” That easily eliminates vast swaths of culture from a culler’s cultural radars. Reality TV? Out. Rap? Out. Documentaries, Westerns, heavy metal: out, out, out.
On the other side, there are those who surrender — people who acknowledge that there is no way for them to ever read all the books they’d need to in order to be considered “well-read.” Those people don’t throw up their hands. They just accept that they’ll never get to all those books that they “should” read.
And I am flying a white flag in a sea of cullers. It’s not that I’m giving up altogether. But really, don’t you think it’s kind of hard — even pointless — to always stay in step with culture?
Even if you knew what book you wanted in a bookstore, there’s the choice to get it digitally on a Kindle or iPad — and if you go that route, then there’s the ability to get thousands more books at any time. Then what do you choose?
Or music? I used to save my lifeguard money in high school to drop at the nearby record store, carefully choosing to buy the albums of just a few artists whose singles had grabbed me on the radio.
And now — with iTunes and Bandcamp and Soundcloud and Reverb Nation — it’s almost impossible to winnow down my list to just a few things I want to purchase. I’m drowning in the music of bands I want to support. But I can’t seem to find time to listen to all of them.
I’m suffocating in culture. And I can’t be alone. And so I found solace in Holmes’ revelation that we can never keep up with the pace of culture. It’s kind of liberating. It makes me feel like I can put down that book I hate, go outside and learn from what’s around me. Or stop trying to seek out my new favorite band and let it — somehow — come to me. Or stop worrying about what I haven’t read and just pick up the book I want.
Doing this might make you want to stop investing all of your time in one thing — be it 20th-century British literature or punk rock or silent movies or theater — and try a little bit of everything that’s out there. Because there’s so much to discover, so many things to sample … After all, we are just blips. We don’t have a lot of time to waste on things we don’t love. And that, to me, as Holmes’ title suggests, is so sad and so beautiful.