Friday, 15 December 2017

Don't Panic

Ashmolean Trip (Southampton-Oxford, December 2017)

Despite being pretty well-informed about quite a few things, the boundlessness of my own ignorance is undeniable. There are just so many knowable things I will never know, can never know. We're all in the same position, of course. You should try to do something about it – you might even see it as the nearest thing to a purpose in life – but sometimes it is hard not to experience an overwhelming sensation of pointlessness, when confronted with the infinite dark forests of the Known and Unknown Unknowns stretching in every direction. Help! Why even bother? It's not surprising, really, that most people seem to give up on the Quest for Knowledge somewhere around age 11. Montaigne's famous question, "Que sais-je?"[1], is all too easily re-inflected from a mission statement to a shrug of resignation: "What the hell do I know?". From there, it's just one easy step to, "What do I care?"[2].

But, like breathing, the point is not to inhale all the available oxygen in the atmosphere, but simply to keep on doing it, in order to stay alive. If staying alive by taking a series of tiny atmospheric samples doesn't seem like a pointlessly feeble – not to say doomed – compromise, then neither should maintaining an active curiosity about the world. It's never been easier, after all: Wikipedia, for example, is an incredible and entirely admirable resource, despite its (much overstated) shortcomings[3]. If you doubt the accuracy of what you read there, then why not check it out? Fact-checking is an important instinct to develop in a world increasingly corrupted by Fake News. Remember the reference librarian's credo: Look it up for yourself, you lazy bastard!

Take novels, for example. I've raised this before, but it bears repeating as a concrete instance of the problem. It's harder to get good figures than you might think, but estimates of how many books are published in the UK each year vary between 70,000 and 100,000, of which, let's say, about 5 percent would be regarded as proper "fiction". So, around 4-5 thousand British novels are published, every year; let's call it 4,500. Now, we can apply the sound general principle that "90% of anything is rubbish". So, of those 4,500 published novels, let's say only 450 are really worth reading. I don't know about you, but identifying, getting hold of, and then reading 8 or more brand new novels every week is beyond my capacity. I'm simply not keeping up as it is – last week I only read one novel, started the week before. And that wasn't a title published this year or even last year! In reality, even if only 45 of this year's crop are really worth reading, I'm never going to get round to reading them all. And I still haven't read any Jane Austen. And that's also completely to ignore the output of any other English-speaking country with a publishing industry. The United States, for example, where I believe the odd novel still gets published.

So, fiction-wise, the situation is beyond hopeless. Every year at this time, the heavyweight papers remind us of that fact with their humiliating "books of the year" lists. The same relentless listing goes on for cinema, TV, recommended restaurants, places to visit... Stop! Just stop! Had we but world enough and time... And yet some of us – a minority, admittedly – do keep on reading, do keep on going to the cinema... What is the matter with us? Well, absolutely nothing. Surely it's obvious that a good life is not well served by a collect-'em-all "bucket list" mentality and, the closer I get to my personal bucket-kicking situation, the more this profound truth impresses itself on me: a few cities well-explored, a few books well-read, some true friends well-loved, maybe just one foreign language well-learned[4]... These are worth a thousand lightly-skimmed, easily-forgotten "experiences". So, don't panic in the face of overwhelming plenitude: just remember to keep breathing, people, and take slow, deep, full breaths!

Obscured by leaves (Paris, October 2017)

 [1] "What do I know?", also the title of a long-running series of informative pocket guides, the model for similar publishing enterprises, such as OUP's "very short introductions".
[2]  "Je m'en fous!" would probably not make a terribly interesting series of pocket guides. Though I don't know...
[3] Next time their plea for funds pops up on your screen, why not send them a few [your currency units here]?
[4] A chance to offload my favourite Russian quotation : znat' tri yazyka nenuzhnaya roskoshch' (to know three languages is an unnecessary luxury - Chekhov).


Paul Mc Cann said...

Since pegging a copy of Hotel de Lac at the wall many years ago I decided life was too short to struggle reading something that didn't gel with me. I will generally read by author until I exhaust that avenue. I read the Literary Review every month and the book reviews in The Guardian and the Observer (the only ones I even begin to trust). If somethine piques my interest I download a sample on a Kindle.

Occasionalyy I will revisit favourites from my youth and realise how much I missed the first time round

What i dislike are those list of likes from people i've never heard of. What do I care about some 7 day wonders tastes.

Generally i resist recommending books to others. Its akin to recommending a restaurant, fraught with danger.

And the regular visoit to a bookshop also helps

Mike C. said...


A bookshop? You live near a bookshop?? What utopia is this?

Talking of books and restaurants, I was deeply shocked to discover, on a first visit back to Bristol after some years, that the venerable George's Bookshop had become a Jamie Oliver restaurant, and that the ndependent Chapter & Verse opposite is now a Fat Face outlet...


Mike C. said...

I stand corrected: Chapter & Verse is now Rise, an independent music and record shop. Which is considerably better than a clothing chain, but still not a bookshop.

Similarly, the best bookshop EVER -- Thornton's in Broad Street, Oxford -- is now a small hotel and an emporium selling souvenir tat to the tourist trade. I could go on, but won't...