“We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything”

Aisle of books at HD
Books for 100 lifetimes!

A few months ago, I read this NPR essay by Linda Holmes about how we deal with the inevitability of not being able to take in every bit of culture that’s available to us during their lives. And by culture she means not just books, of course, but art, television, film, and music. The essay brought to mind the time as an avid young reader when I first heard (or more likely read) about how many books there are in the Library of Congress and did a calculation. Nope, there was no way I could ever read them all–nor even a fraction of them. The feeling after doing that math was similar to what I remember when first contemplating the immenseness of the universe around the same age.

Among other things, Holmes questions whether it is possible to consider anyone well read when, at a proposed rate of 100 books per year, a reader may only take in 6500 books in a lifetime. She also identifies two ways people handle the the cultural firehose: culling and surrendering. Cullers like the sense of control that comes from declaring that they won’t read sci-fi or bother with impressionism or television. By dismissing material categorically, they have to do less discernment. Surrenderers, on the other hand, acknowledge that they simply won’t be able to get to all of Dickens or the Sopranos, or see every Rembrandt. There’s a sadness there, but:

it’s also … great, really. Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.” Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.

Lady Gaga book
There's something for everyone (who hasn't culled pop music from their cultural diet) at HD!

All this was brought to mind last week when I toured the Harvard Depository, the magical place where the millions of books that won’t fit on the shelves in Cambridge are stored off-site. HD is normally closed except to its own staff, but every few years they offer tours to library staff at Harvard so we can learn about how they operate. While the details about how the books (and microfilms and archives and films) are processed, organized, stored, retrieved (~80 books an hour!), and reshelved (~60 books an hour!) were interesting and impressive (only a handful of books out of millions have ever been lost there), what mostly struck me was that I was in the presence of more books in one place than I ever had been before or likely will be again. Although from one perspective, HD is basically just a warehouse, it’s just a warehouse where you can look down an aisle at enough reading material for almost 100 lifetimes. It was a sad and beautiful feeling.

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