You Can't Possibly Read It All, So Stop Trying

As books, magazines and blogs proliferate, avid readers are often frustrated that they don't have time to consume everything. NPR's culture critic Linda Holmes says it's time to face facts: your time is better spent deciding how to choose what to read than bemoaning you can't digest it all.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LYNN NEARY, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary.

Joining me in the studio is Linda Holmes, who is the blogger for the NPR culture blog Monkey See. And I want to read to you how she started a blog posting in April, that we were very curious about. She wrote: The vast majority of the world's books, music, films, television and art, you will never see. It's just numbers.

So Linda Holmes, thanks for being with us. And maybe you can explain - what did you mean by that?

LINDA HOLMES: Yeah. What I meant by that - I had gone through and thought about the number of books you could conceivably read in a year, for example. And then if you extrapolate it out over your lifetime, how many can you reasonably read? And it got me thinking about how vast the world of books is, and how small what you will ever take in actually is. And it becomes a sort of overwhelming thought when you realize that no matter how hard you try, no matter how smart you are, no matter how much you love to read - as I put it in the piece, statistically speaking, you're going to die having missed almost everything.

NEARY: Yeah.

HOLMES: And it's a - it's either a very depressing thought or a very comforting thought, depending on how you approach it.

NEARY: And of course, it goes beyond books, too, to other...

HOLMES: Absolutely. Absolutely. Books are an easy example because you can sort of talk about how many there are, and think in terms of the vastness of that. But yes, it applies to everything. It applies to seeing theater. It applies to seeing dance. It applies to hearing music. If you think about everything that's going on, particularly if you envision the entire world. Things are going on all the time, and they're great and they're wonderful - and you haven't got a chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: Well, you say we have two choices - to cull or to surrender. What do you mean by that?

HOLMES: I think everyone uses a combination of those two strategies. Cull is really the I-don't-want-to strategy. Culling is when you say, this entire genre is not - is bad, and I don't care about it, and it's not worth my time. And therefore, I'm choosing to ignore it on the basis of its merit. That's the I don't want to.

Surrender is more the I can't. Surrender is more the I acknowledge that many of the books that other people are reading, that I am not reading, I might really enjoy. They might be great. I might be missing something great, but I can't have everything. So you give in, and you acknowledge that you've got to make those choices and be at peace with them.

So it's a balance. And what we talked about in the piece, and what I talked about with some of the commenters at the blog, is that the problem for me comes when the culling becomes aggressive and hostile - because it turns into, I don't want to hear about this because I've decided it's not worth my time.

NEARY: Yeah.

HOLMES: So that was sort of the...

NEARY: Which you run into, sometimes, writing the blog - with people saying, I don't want to hear about television because it's no good - or something like that.

HOLMES: Right. Absolutely. And I got started thinking about, kind of, how those arguments - where those arguments come from. And I think sometimes - I mean, obviously, sometimes they're just people from the bottom of their hearts saying, I don't want to hear about it. But sometimes, I think they come from the overwhelming amount of stuff that there is, in the sense that the more you remind people that some of the genres that they have written off may be - you mentioned television, obviously...

NEARY: Right.

HOLMES: ...but anything. It applies to action movies, or it applies in another direction, to classical music. I don't - you know, I don't want to hear about classical music. And sometimes when you write a pop culture blog, people will say, why did you say something about theater? I don't care about that. And I think sometimes, it comes from that kind of discomfort of being reminded of what you're missing.

NEARY: Well, let's get some callers into this conversation. So if you admit that you can't read or see everything, how do you make your decisions? Do you cull? Do you aggressively toss aside categories and genres to make room for what you think is really important, or do you surrender? Do you admit you can't do it all but - and still be well-read. Give us a call. We want to hear how you make these decisions, and what kinds of things you've just sort of decided, I'll never get to. Give us a call at 800-989-8255, or send us an email to talk@npr.org. Or you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So here's something I wanted to ask you, Linda. I know, for instance, you've read "Moby Dick" because you did a book club on that.

HOLMES: I have read "Moby Dick."

NEARY: I suspect "Moby Dick" is one of those books that I'm just never going to get to. But what's - you are immersed in pop culture, you're well-read, you watch TV - and yet still seem to know that a million other things are going on. What are you missing?

HOLMES: Oh, my goodness. I miss a lot of things. I mean, one of the reasons why I read "Moby Dick" is that there are some big holes in sort of my reading of classic books. And part of that is because when I was in high school, I was not a big fiction reader. I was - I've never been a big fiction reader compared to a lot of other people. And so there are definitely - I mean, I definitely have giant holes in that area. I am just starting to see more live theater.

It's really - the other thing I like about the idea of surrender as your approach is that once you say well, you know, there's lots of good stuff out there I'm missing, and that's OK, and I'm not hostile to it, then when it presents itself to you, you go out, you find it, you chase it down, you enjoy it, and you find things that you never would have. And I can't honestly say that my experience with "Moby Dick" was like, wow, I'm really glad I read "Moby Dick." But I'm glad to have read "Moby Dick," I think.

NEARY: But you know what? I think it's interesting you set out to read this book - and you had to read this book, in a way. There are certain things that you do because you had to. I mean, I think about - I always think about that with the reading of "Ulysses," which I did read. And I read it because I was doing a story on it for NPR. I mean, I had to read it.

HOLMES: Right.

NEARY: And I - by the time it came to the end of that story, I thought, I would never have read it if I hadn't - and I was glad I did, in the end.

HOLMES: Right.

NEARY: But certain things, you're just forced to do, right?

HOLMES: Absolutely. And with "Moby Dick," once you make a commitment - and we had sort of a book club going on the blog. And once you make a commitment that you're going to do something like that, you sort of have to see it through to the bitter end. And as you say, I don't know that it's an experience I would repeat again for pleasure. But at the same time, it was really interesting to note some of the differences and some of the things that you could do in a book at that time, that you could get away with.

And to form my own opinion about "Moby Dick," as opposed to there exists the cultural narrative about "Moby Dick" as this giant book, imposing book, book with a ton of stuff about whales - all true, by the way. But now, it's my own opinion, and I value that.

NEARY: What about just sort of - this whole idea of sort of dismissing or even dissing whole genres; you know, television being the most obvious, that people can say oh, you know, there's too much out there in the world. I don't have any time for television.

HOLMES: Right.

NEARY: But they're missing something, some of those people, aren't they?

HOLMES: They are missing some things. And I mean, obviously, there's lots of bad television. There is tons of bad television. But there's also some good television, and there is always - and I think this is in the piece, too - there is always, you know, you're throwing out everything; there's always something good in there somewhere. And the more - the larger the category you decide to throw out - in other words, all of television - the more likely it is that you're throwing out something that you would like.

And it's not that people are wrong about what they like. It's that if you haven't - if you never watch something, then honestly, it's hard to know whether you might like it or not. But people do the same thing with, you know, genres of movies - action movies; I don't to go to action movies. I don't go to foreign films. I don't go to black-and-white movies, so...

NEARY: What do you think that you'll miss in this lifetime, and this I'm asking of our callers now. What do you think you might have to miss in this lifetime, or what do you determine that you won't miss? Give us a call to join the conversation. That's at 800-989-8255. And we are going to go to Lucia(ph), I think it is, in St. Louis, Missouri. And perhaps you can tell me if I've pronounced your name correctly.

LUCIA: It's Lucia. But I - just knowing that you pronounced my name gives me joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: OK.

LUCIA: I probably won't do "Moby Dick." I have a bachelor's degree in English. And I don't want to admit this, but I haven't read the "Iliad." I haven't ready the "Odyssey," and I haven't read "The Aenid." I have read the "Epic of Gilgamesh." It was really good. I have not been - I decided that I will force myself to do "Paradise Lost," but I've had a friend of mind said, don't do itunless you're in a class. But I was like, I'm going to, I'm going to. And otherwise, a lot of the other genres, a lot of the classics I would love to dig into. I'm grateful that I've read "Wuthering Heights." It's an amazing book, and I love "The Sound and the Fury." Wouldn't have read it if I hadn't had the class for it.

NEARY: All right.

LUCIA: ..take the class for it. I'm a classy person.

NEARY: You'll have to take a course, it sounds like, to get through all the books that you want to read.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUCIA: Yeah. Exactly.

NEARY: Thanks so much for calling us. Thanks so much for calling us.

LUCIA: Thanks.

NEARY: Let's go to Kristin(ph), who is calling from Lansing, Michigan. Hi Kristin.

KRISTIN: Hi. Thank you for having me on the show. I really enjoy the program.

NEARY: Good.

KRISTIN: I wanted to call because I love the initial point that was made about how, you know, either you cull or you have to surrender, and that's definitely me. I think that there's something worthwhile than essentially any genre that would fit my, you know, my taste. But it's a struggle, I find, to find something that is going to appeal to me. Like, I have so little time to read that I want to make sure I'm using it responsibly.

And so I find myself, you know, either getting frustrated over spending too much time at a bookstore browsing, you know, looking for either an interesting cover, or an interesting book review, especially. You know, more and more, relying - I find myself relying on book reviews. And you know, the more I read, the more I want to read and that, you know, there is that anxiety over not finding, or feeling that you're missing out on that one perfect book that can show you or expose you to a whole new world of genre.

NEARY: So you're talking about just making a decision is hard, given everything that's out there.

KRISTIN: Yes.

NEARY: How do you finally decide?

KRISTIN: I usually rely on recommendations from others, or book reviews. Or when I do look at used books, I try and find books that have the obvious well-loved, you know, cracks in the cover and things like that. So, you know, I tend to rely more on what, you know, other people think of and other people's opinions on a book, especially if it's an unfamiliar genre for me. I've just recently gotten to the George R.R. Martin books because my husband loved them.

NEARY: Mm-hmm. Did you - and now here's a question. So George R.R. Martin wrote the "Throne of Blood." Did I say that right? No.

HOLMES: "Game of Thrones."

NEARY: "Game of Thrones."

KRISTIN: "Game of Thrones," yeah.

NEARY: "Game of Thrones." I don't know where I got or came up with - I must be mixing "True Blood" and "Game of Thrones."

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: Yes. But anyway, "Game of Thrones." And that was, of course - a lot of people came to that through the HBO series.

KRISTIN: Yeah. I had read it a few years before HBO picked it up. And of course, I watched it, and I recommended all my friends to watch it. And now, my whole family and many of my friends have gotten into the books also, so...

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Kristin.

KRISTIN: Well, thank you so much.

NEARY: And let me just remind everyone that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Linda, that was an interesting moment there when I misspoke about the name of that book and series. But sometimes, that brings up the fact that if you had thrown out TV altogether, you maybe never would have found the books.

HOLMES: Absolutely. And those things do lead into each other. And I - that what I - what was so interesting to me about that call, one of the things that I think the caller is getting at, is that it used to be that the physical methods of distribution were so different that many limitations on what you would ever stumble across were imposed by the physical limitations of your bookstore or your record store, or things like that. And so much of those - so much of that physical limitation doesn't exist. But there's a whole, sort of, world of what you can order for yourself. And so your choices feel much more vast and, I think, sometimes even more overwhelming.

NEARY: All right. There's a couple of emails here that sort of have two different styles, two different approaches. From Peter in Iowa City: I prefer deep listening or reading or viewing to wide. Every three or four years, it seems I set out to discover new bands, new composers, new authors as if I'm trying out a new lifestyle. After an initial period of experimentation, my menu is set, and I dig in. When I'm ready for a change, my tastes slowly evolve. Yes, I miss some movements, but I also save a lot of money that way.

And from Joel(ph) is: I am a college student, and I have little time to read casually. I love reading, though. And I have started reading through Times' top 100 novels of all time. I'm on about 35, and I've loved them all. Two very different approaches.

HOLMES: Yeah. There are so many ways to do it. And I think that's one of the things that's neat about those all the places that do lists now. And obviously, NPR has lots of - especially book lists in the summer. People use lists partly because they're just trying to find an entry point, you know - which is, I think, exactly what, particularly, that second one is about, is using. It's not that, you know, a Time magazine list is anything magical, but it's an entry point. It's a place to start. It's a place to pick things off of. And obviously, they've had AFI, the American Film Institute, has had lists of great movies. And it's a place to start. It's a place to start.

NEARY: Yeah. And if you get through those hundred books, you're probably way ahead of like, most people.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Absolutely. And if nothing else, you've read things that are big in cultural conversations that you can then participate in, whether you like them or not...

NEARY: Right.

HOLMES: ...you know? And that's always valuable, too, I think.

NEARY: All right. Let's go to David. He's calling from Fairbanks, Alaska. Hi, David.

DAVID: Hi. How are you?

NEARY: I'm good. Thanks. How are you?

DAVID: Doing well.

NEARY: Go ahead.

DAVID: Well, when I was 14 and 15, I basically only listened to Japanese music, Japanese rock - like visual kei. And it took me until I was 16, 17, to get back into American music.

NEARY: Wow.

DAVID: And...

NEARY: That's a pretty specific...

DAVID: Yes.

NEARY: ...interest, I have to say.

DAVID: Yeah, I know. I met a friend who was like, listen to this Japanese rock band. And then that's all I consumed myself with.

NEARY: Yeah. And I have to say, that's probably a genre that a lot of people would say, I'm not interested in it at all.

HOLMES: Well, it's not...

DAVID: I know. Mostly, musicians were interested. That was about it.

NEARY: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

HOLMES: It's not just that, but you can also - you could find people who would tell you they know a great deal about music, that their knowledge of music is very wide and very, very significant, and that they have worked hard to make themselves very knowledgeable about music. And then say, how much Japanese rock do you know? And you might very well get a - sort of a, you know, it's just - it's a matter of how big the task is.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for calling, David. And we're going to go to Jason(ph). Jason is calling from Birmingham, Alabama. Hi, Jason.

JASON: Hey. How are you?

NEARY: I'm good. Thanks. Go ahead.

JASON: I was just mentioning that I sort of had to reverse the way I did things. I used to be a very voracious reader of almost anything I could get my hands on. And I went back to school and now teach literature. And as a result, I've kind of had to change the direction of what I read to make it sort of geared towards what I teach, or criticism around what I teach. And that's definitely stopped me from being as, you know, I guess, catholic as I used to be in what I read. But it being summer and now that I'm off, I'm sort of compacting nine months of what I wanted to read into sort of two and a half months - which is sort of difficult, but it's worked out so far. So I guess I'm a surrenderer, in that sense.

NEARY: OK.

HOLMES: Yeah.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for calling, Jason. Would you put him in the surrender category?

HOLMES: I think, as I said, I think everyone does a little bit of both. But yeah, I think for people who have to - as we talked about with "Moby Dick" - people who do tasks for work or for school, you know, you have a balance of the things that you're doing for that, and the things that you're doing just because they appeal to you personally.

NEARY: So let's conclude with this from Bovey(ph) in Knoxville, Tennessee: When I was about 8 years old, I recall asking my father, an English professor, if he had read every book in the world. As someone who thought all books had potential value, his answer surprised me when he said: Not all books are worth reading. The lesson, for me, was clear: Read books that have meaning and significance. That's a good way to call it, right, Linda?

HOLMES: Absolutely.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for joining us. Popular culture critic Linda Holmes blogs at NPR's Monkey See, and you'll find a link to this, and all her columns, at our website, npr.org. Tomorrow, conversations about race, religion, ethnicity, sexual preference, mental health - they can all be difficult. But talking about the things that make us a different is critical in our diverse society. Neal Conan will be here from the Aspen Ideas Festival, to talk about how we discuss difference. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary, in Washington.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.