I have a soft spot for top-10 lists—not the David Letterman variety, but the kind you find in the culture pages this time of year: top-10 films, books, TV shows, music albums, box sets. The list of lists seems to grow every year. It is largely a marketing ploy, of course, but I am an easy mark. My Christmas shopping is not complete until I consult the New York Times list of Notable Books or Entertainment Weekly’s “must have” DVD’s.
Still, I am growing wary of my mania for lists. More specifically, I am worried about how it shapes my cultural consumption. Take my film habit. With a toddler at home, I see fewer films than I once did, but I still try to see the “big films” of the year. Last year, for example, I saw every Best Picture candidate for the Academy Awards, even the gruesome “127 Hours.” Yet was this the best use of my limited viewing time? Should I have been catching up on classic films or seeking out little-known documentaries? Or perhaps I should latch onto another, more reliable cultural arbiter, like A. O. Scott of The New York Times, whose top 10 lists always intrigue.
Then again, why let a critic be my lodestar? As someone who has written reviews of films and television, perhaps I have a responsibility to block out the critical noise as I determine what to write about. Forget the hype and concentrate on the work at hand. Let the art speak for itself.
This can be very difficult, especially in New York, where you can easily get swept up in the cultural tide. (“Have you seen ‘War Horse’ yet?”) And there is no denying the romance of living in a city where the menu of weekend offerings includes de Kooning, Handel and von Trier. Yet all the buzz and hype can be exhausting. If I race to see every Pulitzer Prize-winning play or budding young soprano, I might miss something smaller but very much worthwhile.
The same traps apply to reading. I relish the freedom of the casual reader, jumping from novels to nonfiction to potboilers. Yet I am too enamored of the latest Jeffrey Eugenides or Jonathan Franzen, less willing to trudge through the Great Books I still have not read. Last year, I read the Times’s top five novels of the year, a neat accomplishment, I thought. Yet I did not read any Austen or Tolstoy.
Call it the tyranny of lists. By trying to keep up with the latest trend, I have little time to enlarge my cultural vocabulary. This is the role of formal education, of course: to build up your base of knowledge, to work your way through the canon. Yet unless you are a student in a Great Books program, chances are you will, like me, only graze at the edges of the Western literary tradition.
What to do? I am not a book club person, and I am not inclined to go back to school. Once I am assigned a book, my interest in reading said book diminishes rapidly. Perhaps I could set goals for myself. Alternate reading contemporary works with the classics. Or instead of reading the latest, say, Julian Barnes, start with his earlier, critically acclaimed work.
Ironically, one way to deepen one’s reading habits is to write a book. Any reputable novelist reads widely in her own genre. Nonfiction writers must pursue a sustained course of reading. Yet I am not sure I want to go that route, at least not yet. Not every writer is called to write a book, even if it can help burnish a byline.
I think of my late friend and colleague, Daria Donnelly. She never wrote a book, but she was a voracious and intelligent reader. She once said that there are too many aspiring writers and not enough true readers. I think I now know what she meant.