Life is beautiful (but)
LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL. Even modern life. Maybe even especially modern life. We are saturated with a billion kinds of transient magic. We can pick up a device and contact people a whole hemisphere away. We can, when choosing a holiday, look at the reviews of people who stayed in our desired hotel last week. We can look at satellite images of every road in Timbuktu. When we are ill, we can go to the doctor and get antibiotics for illnesses that could once have killed us. We can go to a supermarket and buy dragon fruit from Vietnam and wine from Chile. If a politician says or does something we disagree with, it has never been easier to voice that disagreement. We can access more information, more films, more books, more everything, than ever before.
When, back in the 1990s, Microsoft’s slogan asked, ‘Where do you want to go today?’ it was a rhetorical question. In the digital age, the answer is everywhere. Anxiety, to quote the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, may be the ‘dizziness of freedom’, but all this freedom of choice really is a miracle.
But while choice is infinite, our lives have time spans. We can’t live every life. We can’t watch every film or read every book or visit every single place on this sweet earth. Rather than being blocked by it, we need to edit the choice in front of us. We need to find out what is good for us, and leave the rest. We don’t need another world. Everything we need is here, if we give up thinking we need everything.
An excess of everything
THERE IS, IN the current world, an excess of everything.
Think of just one single category of thing.
Think, say, of the thing you are holding – a book.
There are a lot of books. You have, for whatever reason, chosen to read this one, for which I sincerely thank you. But while you are reading this book you might also be painfully aware that you aren’t reading other books. And I don’t want to stress you out too much but there are a lot of other books. The website Mental Floss, relying heavily on data from Google, calculated there were – at a conservative estimate – 134,021,533 books in existence, but that was halfway through 2016. There are many millions more now. And anyway, 134,021,533 is still, technically, a lot.
It wasn’t always like this.
We didn’t always have so many books, and there was an obvious reason. Before printing presses books had to be made by hand, written on surfaces of clay, papyrus, wax or parchment.
Even after the printing press was invented there wasn’t that much stuff to read. A book club in England in the early 16th century would have struggled as there were only around 40 different books published a year, according to figures from the British Library. An avid reader could therefore quite easily keep up with every book that was published.
‘So, what are ye all reading?’ a hypothetical member of the hypothetical book club would ask.
‘Whatever there is, Cedric,’ would be the reply.
However, the situation changed quite quickly. By the year 1600 there were around 400 different titles being published per year in England – a tenfold increase on the previous century.
Although it is said that the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the last person who read everything, this is a technical impossibility as he died in 1834, when there were already millions of books in existence. However, what is interesting is that people of the time could believe it was possible to read everything. No one could believe such a thing now.
We all know that, even if we break the world record for speed reading, the number of books we read will only ever be a minuscule fraction of the books in existence. We are drowning in books just as we are drowning in TV shows. And yet we can only read one book – and watch one TV show – at a time. We have multiplied everything, but we are still individual selves. There is only one of us. And we are all smaller than an internet. To enjoy life, we might have to stop thinking about what we will never be able to read and watch and say and do, and start to think of how to enjoy the world within our boundaries. To live on a human scale. To focus on the few things we can do, rather than the millions of things we can’t. To not crave parallel lives. To find a smaller mathematics. To be a proud and singular one. An indivisible prime.
The problem, clearly, isn’t that we have a shortage of time. It’s more that we have an overload of everything else.
Source: Matt Haig – Notes on a Nervous Planet