A lot of people pine about going through separation anxiety with a recently finished book. I can’t say I go through that. If anything, I’m pretty excited when I finish any novel, no matter how good it was. My “To Read” list is always increasing faster than I can get through it. I am very much of a collector of cultural products. There’s always an overwhelmingly large pool of texts still out there; I get a high from finishing things and moving on to the next ones.
One of my greatest grievances with culture is that there is simply too much of it to possibly absorb it all. As a student in Cultural Studies, you face the great frustration of always possessing a minority of the knowledge you’re actually supposed to be dealing with. You constantly face surprised looks from people saying: “What? You haven’t read that book/seen that movie/heard of so and so…?” As if literature scholars didn’t have it bad enough already. Literature can only increase in its number of works. You’re constantly catching up with history, while trying to stay on top of contemporary scenes. The 20th century provided great leaps for Mankind and only great despair for Alexis’ schedule. Presently, you need to stay on top of not only books but films, television, music, internet culture (insert here an exponentially dividing number of communities), video games, and who knows what other pop culture phenomenons you might be into.
Here, I come back to my petition to increase the number of hours in a day (scientists, any progress on slowing the rotation of the Earth?). 200 years ago, people had time for Jane Austen novels. First of all, literature had a much more restricted audience, people who had money, owned land, and had a lot of time to spare during the day. Secondly, written publications, whether books or newspapers, were the only kind of circulating stories you could enjoy at home. People had time to go through 300-page books of characters living circular lives where not much happened.
I can’t actually claim to be reading any Austen currently. The last time I had my hands on one of her books was a couple of years ago and I remember thinking the whole way through of all the other things I could be doing, as Marianne simply failed to get to the point with Mr. Willoughby. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to hate on Jane Austen, whom I do hope to eventually get around to in a more substantial way. My frustration with literature of previous ages is not only that it becomes more and more inaccessible as you go back in time, but even if you take the time to appreciate the language, it’s just too damn long.
I think a lot of our modern day short attention span comes from how fragmented our culture is. Books have not only condensed but gotten quicker. You can’t hope to tell a good story unless you’re constantly moving things forward. Same goes for movies. In the short century we’ve been making them, their rhythm has greatly accelerated. The average movie scene has decreased from over 4 minutes long in the 1950s to close to a minute today. In a video game, the character is always running and if you’re stuck in the same area for too long without a clear view of what you have to do, interest decreases quickly. TV has it worse, with constant breaks between programs, and 15-30 second flash ads conveying character, narrative and plot in fractions of time. That Cold FX lady can get over her illness, but she better not take more than 5 seconds to go from sick to healthy. We have the news to get to!
Speaking of the news, I have to say how confusing it is to watch the North American news for someone who is not accustomed to it. In France, we’ll have the newscast twice a day: around lunch and dinner time. Half an hour each. That’s it. And no one really bothers with the midday one, which is essentially fluff news. Sure, you’ll get the 24/7 news channels, but no one actually watches that unless they’re traders or retirees. For the majority of the population, you get your daily dose at 8 o’clock and probably tune off before the end, as the big pieces get through first. Now take CBC news, which I watched for about 2 years in my university dining hall whether I wanted to or not. Pieces last on average about 30 seconds. And they NEVER get to the point. The anchor only hints at what’s going on before moving on to the next headline. You have to be watching at the right time to get the extended coverage of a story. Otherwise, you just have to wait for the headlines cycle to come around again and see if they’ve updated anything.
I have a lot of gaps in my culture. I got an education in French literature, but am by no means educated in that area. English culture is just a vast umbrella term in which I have to be knowledgeable in English, American and Canadian texts (which are different things, unlike some Europeans might assume) not to mention the rest of Anglophone production throughout the world. For a long time it stressed me to constantly chase after all these media and cultures and never catch up to them. I think I may have come to terms now with the fact that there will always be more culture out of me than there is in me. Instead, I live by the motto that one book (film, TV show, etc.) read is one more accomplished. There is no end to that list, but the satisfaction comes in the form of accumulation. I never manage to absorb as much culture as I would like to each day, but I’ll keep fighting the clock and one of these days, when I feel further along this path and less pressed for time, I’ll be sure to invite Jane over for a cup of tea and hear what she has to say.