There are far more books in the world than anyone could possibly read in their lifetime. There are far more films than anyone could possibly watch, far more songs than anyone could possibly listen to.
I don’t know how old I was when I understood that. I feel that it might have been university, when all my horizons expanded in all directions at once, and I realised that:
- I didn’t know everything
- I was never going to know everything
- I didn’t have to know everything
Before that, the books I knew about were at home, or in the school library, or in the local library. And yes, that was a lot of books, but I always felt that if I really applied myself I could work my way through the whole lot in a logical fashion.
Maybe it was seeing the university library that did it. Who knows? I wish I had one neat moment of epiphany to trot out, but I don’t.
Anyway, once you’ve had that epiphany, what do you do with it?
There are a variety of approaches.
You can read/watch/listen to as many of the books/films/songs as you humanly can. Read every book that your hand touches. My godmother told me once that John Cage said that one should only ever listen to each piece of music once, because there simply isn’t time to do more.
But I know that if I only listen to a piece of music once, I can do little more than nod and smile. In order to really appreciate it, I need to listen to it over and over again, to get right into it. If possible, to perform it, even.
(Probably if I were a better musician, this would be a quicker process for me. A degree in English Literature and a decade plus of creative writing trial and error have enabled me to see how a text is put together without having to think much about it.)
So that suggests an opposite approach: consume very few pieces of art, but really get into them. Re-read, listen over and over, watch again and see what you didn’t pick up the first time, or the second time, or the third time.
The temptation then is to ensure that the art that one does examine is somehow worthy of all these hours that one’s putting into it – but, without putting the hours in, how does one know what’s worthy? One ends up deferring to others’ judgement. Let us watch the films that won the Oscars, or read the books that are on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, or whatever it might be.
(Personally, I find that any attempt to tell me that I must read anything results in instant resentment and a resolution not to read the thing if humanly possible. As it happens, I’ve read a decent number of those books, but not because they’re on that list, and I feel no compunction to read all of them.)
There are two main dangers that I can see to concentrating on the good stuff.
Firstly, you might miss things. But that’s inevitable, however you go about this. That’s the whole point of this post. You will miss things.
Secondly, you might never read anything because you actually want to read it. You might end up trapped in a book you hate, never finishing it, and never starting anything else, either.
In fact, that’s the main drawback to both of those approaches, and I’ve tried them both. ‘Read everything, no matter what it is’ – and you’ll end up slogging through a whole load of ill-written drivel, pompous litfic, formulaic genre and spectacularly biased unclassifiable screeds, and hating all of it. ‘Concentrate on what is known to be good’ – and it’ll be like having to get through plateful after plateful of worthy vegetables before you’re allowed pudding. Pudding might never come. You might never get round to reading anything fun.
And if reading isn’t fun, then why on earth are you doing it? (Well, actually… to be discussed in a subsequent post.) These days, you know, I mostly read what I feel like reading, and I stop if I’m not enjoying it. And that’s good enough for me.