We writers aren't just competing with our peers, but with all the greatest masterpieces of the ages. How's a reader to choose?
If you’re here reading this, you’ve given me a rare gift. For that I thank you.
Jim Haught’s column on music this week got me thinking. We creative types—writers, musicians, artists—face a unique challenge. Our currency is attention: the time and concentration it takes for an audience to absorb our work.
But we’re not just competing with our peers for that attention. We’re competing with all the works of genius that have ever existed. And that catalog of masterpieces is only growing.
Not enough minutes in the day for reading
Now that the weather is warming up and the days are growing longer, I like to go for brisk walks in the evening while listening to music on my headphones. It’s a pleasant activity, combining fresh air, recreation and exercise.
Depending on my mood, I might replay one of my favorite albums, or I might try a streaming service that makes recommendations. Usually its suggestions don’t thrill me, but occasionally I discover something new that strikes a chord in my soul.
The same goes for books. I try to read one book a week, sometimes slower when I’m struggling to get through a book, sometimes faster when I’m really enjoying one. I borrow most of my reads from my local library. It’s free, which is a plus, and in these times of increasingly aggressive book censorship by the right, I believe it’s valuable to show support for public libraries.
However, if I’m being honest, the real reason is that I just don’t have space for new book purchases. My shelves are overfull as it is, and I’m a bit embarrassed by how many older books are boxed up in my attic.
Either way, I never have as much free time for these pleasures as I wish I did. There are too many competing priorities: home chores, cooking, parenting, my own writing. On a good day, I might find an hour’s worth of uninterrupted time for music or reading.
Because there’s so much to take in and so little time to do it, we have to be selective with our attention. It’s impossible to keep up with the torrent of creativity. Even if you never revisit a book you enjoyed, it would take more hours than there are in a day just to read all the new books being published.
But there’s no reason to limit yourself to new books. The ones that were published decades or centuries ago still exist. Why not consider them too?
A treasure room of genius
Not every book from the past is one you’d want to read. Sturgeon’s law applies to the past just as it does to the present. However, if you screen out the low-quality flotsam and jetsam, that still leaves an overflowing treasure room of genius from across the ages. Hamlet or Frankenstein or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are as timeless and vital as the day they were written, waiting for new audiences to discover them.
The same goes for music, photography, dance, cinema, and everything else in the pantheon of human creativity. Thanks to our globalized digital culture, they’re all at our fingertips. It’s a vast banquet of culture more readily available to the average person than past generations could have imagined in their wildest dreams.
You could make it your life’s mission to see the best movies of all time, or listen to the greatest albums ever, or read all of the one thousand novels everyone “must” read. If you have a screen with an internet connection, you can do most of these things without leaving your home.
Or, if you live in or near a big city, you can tour a different museum, see a different show, or visit a different art gallery every weekend—likely without ever repeating. You can admire and appreciate Roman sculpture, Egyptian architecture, Japanese poetry—even cave paintings if you want to!
Given this almost infinite array of choices, your attention is a priceless favor. When you put on a song or sit down with a book, it’s saying that, at that moment, you value it more than all the other creative output of humanity up to that point. Put this way, it’s a wonder that anything new gets read, seen or heard at all!
Picking up a novel or a magazine doesn’t feel like such a momentous choice, but maybe it should. Then again, maybe that’s too much of a burden. Thinking this way all the time would be paralyzing. The paradox of choice is real, and constant awareness of all the options might make whatever we chose feel arbitrary and meaningless.
The arrogance of writing
This is an illustration of a broader humanist principle: our time on earth is finite, so we have to make it count. There’s no afterlife, no reincarnation, no eternal expanse of time to catch up on your TBR pile. This life is all we get.
There’s enough time to do a lot of things, but not enough to do everything. So, you have to choose wisely. You have to know yourself if you’re to make the choices that will make your life the most meaningful.
No one can do it for you, because no one else can know you as well as you know yourself. No religious scripture, guru, best-of list, or newspaper critic can tell you how best to spend your days. At most, they can give signposts to guide your path. In the end, the choice rests with you. That’s an epiphany both liberating and terrifying, like a leap into open air.
So, if you chose to give your attention to this column today, I’m grateful. Whatever motivated you to read it, I hope you found it a worthwhile use of your time.
For the same reason that new writers face a formidable task in finding an audience, writing is an act of unbridled arrogance. It requires you to believe that you have something to offer, some perspective or insight, that’s more valuable than anything anyone has come up with before you. And yet, if you keep at it, you’ll sometimes be fortunate or privileged enough to hear from someone who found value in your words.
It’s humbling to know that you created something that resonated with someone, that changed their life for the better. It’s that transformative experience that I seek when I go out into the world, to read something I haven’t read before, in the hope of finding treasure within. And it’s that same transformation that I wish for you.