Each time I walk into my office, I see an unread copy of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy mocking me. It seems to say: “I am a classic; why have you not read me?” No matter what excuse I adduce—I am very busy, you are many pages, there are a lot of books—it continues to reproach me.
I recall listening to Ruth Seymour, a former director of public radio, use the phrase “the shelf of constant reproach” to describe all those books lined up on a shelf beside your bed waiting to be read. Things have only gotten worse in recent years: In addition to reproachful books, there are censorious screens.
Everything on TV is available all the time, the content proliferates, and it seems there is no excuse for not streaming the latest craze. Your TV screen stands as a continual challenge—never seen Breaking Bad? Wired? Sopranos? Making of a Murder? And what about the new movie releases? Are you prepared to be the one person who hasn’t seen the new Star Wars or watched Leonardo DiCaprio eat raw bison liver in The Revenant? Then get moving—or rather, sitting—and watch.
And what about the adorable/exciting/astonishing Youtube videos that accumulate in your inbox or your Facebook page? How could you miss the rat dragging a slice of pizza or the skateboarding bulldog? As if that wasn’t bad enough, we are told all the time we shouldn’t be sitting anyway, that sitting is the new smoking, and we should out and moving (and perhaps listening to the latest music while we move, lest we miss it). And even if you are moving, take those earbuds out, because you should be interacting with others. The besetting sin of the new generation is that texting has replaced conversation. Don’t just sit together and watch something—talk!
“The world is too much with us,” William Wordsworth wrote in the early 19th century, and he got to take undisturbed daily walks in the Lake country, before cellphones beeped and we faced a world where drones may one day drop Amazon boxes on our heads.
I really do want to read Tristram Shandy before I die. I assume any book that has survived for hundreds of years has the digressive brilliance its fans claim. Nonetheless each week I find myself ordering more books that I need to read first, the shelves get more crowded, the DVR list grows, and my inbox groans. Sometimes the idea that there is “just too much” induces fatigue, and we plop on the couch, microwave popcorn in hand, to watch the Bachelor who seeks Real Housewives on Temptation Island.
The only healthy attitude toward the avalanche of “content” is to recognize that we will all pass from this earth with many books unread, many movies unviewed, and many conversations unhad. That should make us reach each time for the best book or the most important person.
Unfortunately, impulse often overrides importance. We often neglect things of enduring value in favor of the dopamine shot of a Twitter fix. But there should be room in life for the longer investment, as the farmer who plants and tends and harvests. Read or watch or listen to something that takes effort and rewards it. As Ernest Hemingway said, good is what feels good after. After I finally read Tristram Shandy, I know I will feel great.