Do We Need a Cultural Diet?
Charlie Brooker's October 5, 2009 article in The Guardian entitled, "There's too much stuff. We live in a stuff-a-lanche. It's time for a cultural diet," resonates with many of us. Provocative yet prudent, he reflects on one of the inevitable characteristics of consumer culture--too much stuff--through the lens of his DVD and book collection. He realizes that he now has more unwatched DVDs and unread books than he can possibly enjoy in his remaining lifetime. He laments, "I've tried more. It's awful. I want less, and I want it now."
Through the lens of the BBC television series Electric Dreams, in which for one month the amenities of a family's home reflect only what was available in past decades, Brooker moves us backward to a time that seems to offer fewer options and less complexity. After acknowledging that the teenage kids were less than impressed, he counters, "But to me the limited options looked blissful. You couldn't lose yourself online, so... you had to read a book, go for a walk, or in extreme circumstances, strike up a conversation with a fellow human being."
His observations are dead on. The proliferation of 'stuff' does seem to clutter our attention to a point that it seems impossible to turn off the torrent and refocus on relationships with people. Considering the fact that we all have limits to our lifespan, how we invest our time and attention would appear to be a critical question. But these issues reach further back than it might at first seem--well beyond the past few decades.
In 1920, Arthur Quiller-Couch, the Cambridge lecturer known to his contemporaries as 'Q', observed that the chief problem in the universities was a glut of information beyond the capacity of any human being to take on. Even more than the sheer volume of knowledge represented in the Cambridge library was the fact that, according to Q, only a small portion of it was worth reading. Discernment of some kind was in order if one was to take full advantage of the opportunity to study--and to live.
He writes, "If you crave for Knowledge, the banquet of Knowledge grows and groans on the board until the finer appetite sickens. If, still putting all your trust in Knowledge, you try to dodge the difficulty by specializing, you produce a brain bulging out inordinately on one side, on the other cut flat down and mostly paralytic at that: and in short so long as I hold that the Creator has an idea of a man, so long shall I be sure that no uneven specialist realizes it. The real tragedy of the Library at Alexandria was not that the incendiaries burned immensely, but that they had neither the leisure nor the taste to discriminate" (Quiller-Couch, Arthur. Cambridge Lectures, "The Art of Reading", 1920).Continued on the next page