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The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We're All Going To Miss Almost Everything (npr.org)
345 points by adambyrtek on Apr 20, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 135 comments

I truly believe nearly everyone realizes that it is impossible to experience all or nearly all of what is important to cultivate in one lifetime.

Beyond that, perception tends to be affected by one's age. When I was young (e.g., in my 20s), all the possibilities of the world seemed open to me and it was just going to be a question of what I would do first - I put everything else into the category "I'll get to that when I have time." I had done a lot to develop my talents and knowledge base, and in a range of areas to boot. But my reading of the "great works" trailed off following college. Time was too limited to get to most of them. But, some day, yes, I would do so. I had never learned to play an instrument. But, when I had time, I would learn piano. I had limited time to do non-business travel, but some day I would make it up.

Of course, "some day" one day comes and you quickly realize that many unrealized hopes and dreams would never in fact be realized. And that includes becoming cultivated in a range of areas. When this fact first strikes you, it truly is depressing. For me, it was the first time in my life that I started to feel "old" (feeling old is not so much chronological as it is a state of mind). You become overwhelmed with the fact that you will never keep up with all the new trends and you will never have the time to fill all the holes in your knowledge base or to do all the things you dreamed of doing.

In time, though, I came to make peace with this sense of restlessness. Life is too short to do everything but life is more than ample enough to do important things, things that count beyond the mundane routines of daily existence. This life is but a breath or, as my 100-year-old grandmother said shortly before she passed on, everything that she had experienced to that point was "but a blink." When you can get to that stage and say, "no regrets" for a life well-led, you can have peace with your finite capacities and your finite existence in this world. There is much that is beautiful to do in this life. You don't need to do it all. You just need to do it well.

>There is much that is beautiful to do in this life. You don't need to do it all. You just need to do it well.

As someone who's slowly but surely approaching that cusp of realization you describe, I thank you for putting this so eloquently.

I'm not one of those manic people with boundless energy. I was happy to put things off til another day. There was always more time to get around to doing/seeing/reading/watching/visiting whatever.

But after a car accident 3years ago I realised that there isn't necessarily a tomorrow. I look at a beautiful sunset today and accept that I might not see tomorrow's. And if I do, it won't be exactly the same. I look at today's and appreciate it, cherish it.

Some people see this acceptance of the possibility of death as a negative thing. It is not. It drives me to make today count, knowing that I can never get around to doing everything, but that what I do should matter to me. You will not die with no regrets but you should be able to minimise them. And it isn't all about work, production or consumption -- often what I really want to be doing is lying on the grass, watching the clouds drift past, as the kids run around the garden jumping on me.

I found Viktor Frankl's book "Man's Search for Meaning" to be hugely inspiring: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man%27s_Search_for_Meaning

I would vastly prefer not to die at all, and science is moving us in that direction.

That said, I don't think death is necessary as a motivator to "make today count." Today is a motivator to make today count. The living is the thing. Every attempt I've heard to bring extrinsic meaning to life falls flat on inspection. You have to chase what moves you, and that doesn't change as a function of expected lifespan. At least, not much.

Live forever? No, I wouldn't like that at all.

In many ways I think we prolong life without consideration for preserving the quality of life. Losing my mobility or my eyesight (both of which happened to my grandparents) would be a huge problem for me.

And perhaps some people can find that motivation for living for today but in my experience most people can't. Even those close to me have not had the same reaction to my car accident... it is not enough for someone to tell you or show you how short life can be, you need to experience it.

> You become overwhelmed with the fact that (...) you will never have the time to fill all the holes in your knowledge base or to do all the things you dreamed of doing. In time, though, I came to make peace with this sense of restlessness

You are right, and the article is wrong! ;-) The article confuses breadth and depth.

What matters is not how many subjects you know a little about, or how many acquaintances you have, or how many shows you attended; what matters is the things you know well because you built them yourself, the one or two friends you can trust with your life, or the artistic emotions that changed you forever.

Thanks for taking the time to capture the sentiment so beautifully.

Everything seems so surreal once you reach a realization like this.

Life is too short to do everything but life is more than ample enough to do important things, things that count beyond the mundane routines of daily existence. This life is but a breath or, as my 100-year-old grandmother said shortly before she passed on, everything that she had experienced to that point was "but a blink." When you can get to that stage and say, "no regrets" for a life well-led, you can have peace with your finite capacities and your finite existence in this world. There is much that is beautiful to do in this life. You don't need to do it all. You just need to do it well.

I can't really add to that. Well-said.

When I turned 40 I figured my odds of living another 40 years were pretty good. I then figured that if I continued to read one book a week (my average) for the rest of my life, I would read another 2,080 books. That sounds like a lot but really it isn't, especially when one considers how many great books there are out there that one hasn't read. Many more than 2,080! So now when I consider reading another book I ask myself if it looks good enough to be one of my 2,080. Many books do not make that cut. I think it's been a good filter and I expect as I grow older, and I have fewer and fewer books looks left to read, I will get even more selective in what I read.

I used to try and read many great books. As I got older I started reading fewer great books, many times.

I think nowadays each year I read about 50% new books, and 50% books I've read before. I think you get more out of reading that way.

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

It's an additional pause, for me, when I consider how many of those books may be technical books. A couple of hundred? That's 10 % of my remaining "quota".

Which serves as a reminder to make sure those books count, as well. Top shelf, as it were.

I'm not much for repeating content. That's why I don't like to buy DVDs or build a collection of things. Music is an exception, but as far as film and books -- I have zero interest in experiencing the exact same content repeatedly. I could not consume all the wonderful content in ten life times, so I'm not going to short myself something that I have yet to enjoy, because I have to read a book the fourth time or see a movie the tenth time.

My first thought in response to this actually deviated from the intention of the topic. You see, I am constantly amazed at humanity. For all the stupidity and evil, we have a capacity for overwhelming kindness, compassion, ambition, and ingenuity.

Few days ever go by that I don't see something that makes me have a moment of extreme pride in this species (and I wonder if other species from other planets out there in the great beyond would share any of the same appreciation).

Anyway, those thoughts are usually followed directly by the realization that life is so painfully short. Too brief. No matter what fantastic accomplishments I witness in my few remaining decades on this blue ball, I will miss out on everything that comes after. I probably won't be alive when we discover other life in the universe. When we accomplish teleportation and long distance space travel. When we have kick ass robots that we can have conversations with. When we do everything that nobody can even conceive of, today.

I wonder, would anyone take up the offer if it was given, to be in some sort of stasis that allowed you to awake for one year every hundred years? You'd miss out on all relationships and so much life, but you'd also experience a year of life every century, well into the 31st century (and probably beyond, if medical science could extend your life another forty years at some point, there).

I'm tempted. I can't say I'd do it with absolute certainty, but I would have to think very long and hard about the chance for such a prolonged journey. Plus, I bet girls in 3011 are total sluts.

> I wonder, would anyone take up the offer if it was given, to be in some sort of stasis that allowed you to awake for one year every hundred years?

You mean like Brigadoon/Germelshausen? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germelshausen (in the original german tale, the time-travel is a curse)

Even if I were into that idea, I guess I just don't have your faith in humanity or modern society even.

My bet is that some x<100 years after you've been put into stasis, the company folds, sells the bodies (assets) to pay off debt and you are forever lost.

This of course, ignores the natural disasters, massive wars (we've had 2 in the past century), or other calamities that might completely destroy society/contracts as we know it... 100 years is a LONG time.

If you can make it for a couple more decades, you almost certainly will live long enough to witness a computer/robot passing the turing test.

I don't know that I will be impressed when that happens. Something tricking you into believing it is sentient is interesting, but inevitable. I want to live long enough that my toaster is an emotional roller-coaster.

The overwhelming amount of material has a number of implications; when I realized just how much stuff was out there, it occurred to me that this implied a lot of things about people's true esthetic preferences and the justifications for intellectual property. Ironically, I then wrote a long essay on it: http://www.gwern.net/Culture%20is%20not%20about%20esthetics....

(I include a number of statistics on how much stuff, exactly. Skip down to http://www.gwern.net/Culture%20is%20not%20about%20esthetics.... where the numbers go into the billions.)

Certainly one way of looking at my time on Earth is to ask what I've consumed and what I haven't. What I've read and what I haven't. What I've seen and what I havent.

In some ways, the more motivating question for me is: what have I produced? If time is an input, what is my output? I would hope that I'm converting time as efficiently as possible into great output, though I know that's often not the case. But framing my life in this way -- as the processing of time into something tangible -- keeps me focused, energized, and productive.

I spent most of my life being concerned with leaving some sort of immortalizing legacy behind. Some great work or impact on the world that would never be forgotten.

Then I came to the conclusion that I'm a tiny life on a tiny planet in the arm of a huge galaxy in an infinite universe. That the entire planet - to the universe - is no more than a speck of sand is to the entire Earth. That on this planet, celebrities and accomplished scientists and creators will almost all be forgotten in decades; certainly a hundred years. A few will last beyond that. As the span of time grows, only a few names -- maybe Hitler, George Washington, Ramses -- will live on for hundreds of more years. Even thousands. And I'm certainly never going to amount to anything like those guys.

And, when it comes down to it, all of human history has occurred on this tiny blue speck. Even the most monumental achievements and persons won't matter to anyone outside the planet and almost none will matter even to those of our own species who might continue on (assuming we aren't obliterated by some catastrophe and have spread out into the universe).

So, I'm able to recognize that anything I accomplish will only have temporary meaning and that the both the most awesome and hideous legacies of all time will grow to mean nothing. So . . . why worry about my trivial actions? I'm like a bacteria on a counter waiting to be sprayed with Lysol.

And no, that doesn't bum me out.

How has this new perspective affected the choices you make in life?

The realization itself came to me when I was listening to Carl Sagan read from Pale Blue Dot. For an unseemingly long minute, it took the breath out of my body and when I finally drew it in again, the near obsessive voraciousness with which I attacked certain things (often to the detriment of my own well-being, in favor of some demented work-ethic) suddenly lifted. Just a bit at first. But enough.

The most dramatic impact is that I stopped letting a project I started in 1997 (when I was 20) continue to suck me dry, like a vampire. I ran it far after I'd entirely lost interest in it. Partially because I felt it was my one meaningful contribution to anything, so far. I started it in 1997 and did every piece of work involved in it from building the servers to writing all of the backend code and front-end presentation and dealing with users (it was an auction site with a niche sub-culture twist and a screw-eBay and their fees selling point). When you invest that much time (many thousands of hours) and money and emotion into a project, you feel an obligation to maintain it. When you know there are tens of thousands of regular users (100k, at the peak) depending on it for socializing and even their income in some cases, you feel obligated. And, like with bad relationships, the familiarity and all of that invested time obligates you.

For me, it got to the point where I wouldn't read my email anymore. I wouldn't post in my own forums. I wouldn't even visit my own site for months at a time. I would rely on a script to ensure the site was up and responding, because even just seeing the front page load filled me with anxiety and a degree of loathing. I ran this for twelve years. The last six of them almost entirely out of some misguided sense that I owed it to people. Or that I owed it to myself (that ceasing it would somehow waste all of my personal investment in it).

One day, I decided that was it. I had to cut the cord with the project and the community and everything that it ever meant. I published a grateful thank you and goodbye (sans the details about how I had come to loath everything about it) with a notice that I would terminate it in three months. And on that date, I simply pulled the plug.

I still have a workaholic mentality, where work is concerned. But at least my every waking moment outside of work isn't spent dealing with users or mediating conflicts between them or fixing bugs or feeling that I had to get around to re-writing the entire code-base all over again. Or feeling that I needed to respond to all the requests over the years for me to "sell my code" to people by actually polishing it up and making it a product (I didn't). Instead, I can read a book, watch a movie, listen to music, play a videogame, or even just take a long nap. All things I rarely ever did the previous dozen years.

Further, while I spent those dozen years essentially feeding that monster with every ounce of leftover energy and not having the mental bandwidth left over to ponder future ideas and ventures, I now have some free space and time that allows me to pursue something new. I don't have anything yet. I never really was a huge "idea" guy (that project was my only shining moment of brilliance, to be honest). But, now, I can.

You can find the specific segment I refer to from Pale Blue Dot, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p86BPM1GV8M

And you can find the text, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_Blue_Dot#Reflections_by_Sa...

Thank you for sharing the passage. I particularly enjoyed the imagery of the line "the earth is where we make our stand"--really dynamite stuff.

The notion of an individual immortalizing legacy is a very western notion. One only needs to look at some of the great cornerstones of western literature to see this, specifically The Aeneid and The Iliad both speak of glory and historical remembrance. You don't see this as frequently in eastern culture. Ancestry is important, but ancestry is less about individual immortality as it is about continuing the family lineage--something that is much larger and more important than the individual.

When my studies in philosophy shifted from a western focus and began to incorporate eastern thought, I had a very similar experience. I realized that my existence was insignificant in the grand scheme of things--something I had really known before but perhaps never fully accepted. This is a powerful thought because from this we can deconstruct our entire society and existence. Some of my favorite western literature is from the existentialists. When you begin to go down this road, however, you can come rather close to madness, as many of the existentialists did. Rules of man and nature can be questioned and dismissed as irrelevant. Life can become meaningless.

Oddly enough I seek out my favorite existential texts when I too am in a dark place and feeling the solitude that a conscious and reflective life most certainly brings from time to time. I find solace in the fact that others felt this despondence and through pages and time the authors reach out with empathy. That is what art gives us--a medium through which we can bridge the solitude of existence and touch another being. That feeling reminds me that the connection between beings is what life is about (at least for me)--a moment of escape from our corporal prisons and a brief return the the continuity of the universe. This I believe is fundamental to the human experience, even if I don't understand the meaning of life.

I think I tend to be more of an absurdist than anything else. Interesting for those interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism.

Regardless, I believe one cannot go wrong in defaulting to this simple, folksy wisdom of one of the great thinkers of our time: Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it. - Mohandas Karamchand Ghandi

"I think I tend to be more of an absurdist than anything else. Interesting for those interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absurdism.

Thanks, nice find. I always thought I'm an existentialist, but no, I'm an absurdist.

Upvoted just to hear I wasn't the only one who's literally had their breath taken away by that passage. I was listening to it on audiobook while I was running, and about halfway through that passage I stopped dead and cried. My eyes are welling up even remembering that moment.

I've never been a workaholic, and have always been pretty laid back - but since hearing that passage, I've had a much more sage, compassionate, patient and relaxed outlook on things. It's acted as a kind of momento mori for me - don't get too upset about things; don't get too worried about things; just make the best you can of what's going on now for yourself and those around you.

My sincere congratulations on your "first failure" - I hope you continue to look back on this ending as the beginning of an exciting new journey.

I too feel driven all the time. Perhaps too much. I spend a lot of time feeling guilty about not doing something. I hope that remembering what you said lightens my load too.

"And no, that doesn't bum me out."

Yes, I think the difference is for what you're using this picture.

One way would be to get depressed, to suffer from the meaningless of life. But then you have just used the picture to feed the one, who is harming you, the ego. He's the one who takes the fun, the freedom out of your life, because he tells you what you should be and do.

Well stated. This is the number one thing preventing me from being well read. I feel like I'm wasting my time.

I'm only 27 years old, but it is my firm conviction that 99% of stuff out there is utter shit. Not just mediocre, not just unnecessary, but genuine bollocks.

And I think that's fine. It's important we try new things before we completely understand them.

My adrenalin levels are way up though, as I'm typing this. It sure doesn't _feel_ fine.

Worse than bollocks. 99% of stuff out there (even literature) is someone trying to sell you something. Propaganda, in short.

While reading this, I kept thinking of the excellent Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last."

In it, The book loving protagonist survives the "end of the world" and, after being all alone, is ready to kill himself. But once he stumbles upon the library, he realizes he has the rest of his life to read whatever he wants. Of course, things don't go as planned.

That episode always haunts me and it raised some other thoughts.

If you were the last person on the planet, would you still read and listen to music? I mean, without being a member of a species and a society that contextualizes you, does music even mean anything to you anymore? Do stories? If you're exiled on an island somewhere, you know that humanity continues to hum along past your horizon, even if you're stranded from it. But once it's eradicated - along with the whole ambition and possibilities of it - do created works hold anything for the one remaining survivor?

I think it is hard to get your head around the totality of it. I suspect that if I were to lose all my children to an accident I would have a hard time finding the will to live. Losing all of humanity would include them. If you managed to survive that despair long enough, you might come out the other end in some fashion but as you say the context and meaning of everything would be altered.

This has been touched upon in speculative fiction, i.e. the library of knowledge remaining from a civilization that no longer exists. More than once. Not even including Kal El :-)

Probably reading, watching movies and listening to music would be in your best interest, as it would simulate some kind of dialog with a human being, maybe it would prevent you from losing your mind.

And that matters why?

I thought this would be about the fact that all of us will miss the next thousand and million years and everything that will happen on earth during that time.

I'm not at all as sad over missing most of contemporary culture as I am over missing what will happen beyond my life span. The technological marvels, the scientific advances, the development of new ways of looking at what life really means. The advent of new forms of life, perhaps alien or artificial, which is so unlikely to happen during the flash of time I get to spend here.

In this perspective the article came across as very unimaginative and dull, but I suppose that's only me.

What's more sad I suppose is that what a few people have decided to be worth reading is probably just a subset of what's actually great out there to discover. I read a lot of classic literature and philosophy not working through any list but rather trying to be less ignorant than I was yesterday.

I routinely go back to re-read things I've read before though. That's really what defines what books I got something out of reading. I'm probably never going to read Plato again if I have a choice in the matter but I'm currently returning to Cicero and then reading Augustine of Hippo whose major works I read years ago. I've also read the Bible more times than I could count.

Thankfully there aren't too many new computer books worth reading or I'd never get around to reading these old books.

Good points in the link. The only thing I'd like to point out is that the author starts with the assumption that BOOKS are what we WANT to read. Just because they've been the norm, does not make them the best method of knowledge transfer. I'd argue that 90% of each book is fluff. Back in the day, Charles Dickens and Co. were getting paid by the page, hence why all the classics are lengthy. Add to that the fact that school essays come with size requirements (a poor way of making people iterate on their thoughts), and we have a system where size is king. We've gotten used to a book being 100 pages or more, but knowledge can be transferred a lot more efficiently. Hacker News is one example of a better method, which really brings us to the following (incomplete) list of more concise writing methods:

- Cliff Notes

- Pamphlets

- Blogs

Some people see reading as a leisure activity. I see it purely as a knowledge transfer method, hence I prefer it to be concise and to the point. The only argument I can think of in favor or lengthy books is that by spending more time on the material, it sinks into your head better.

Agreed, for many books. I'd also add the book digests (especially for Management books), and then diagrams and charts, which can convey so much more.

But on top of that, I think the framework/lens you have when you're reading makes a big difference too. Biggest advantage of a Cliff Notes-style is to add an opening paragraph saying: this author was writing in a time of social change X or common belief Y, and most of this book addresses their concerns related to that (many of which were unfounded).. or something.

On your last point: I think reading as leisure is a wholly worthwhile pursuit in its own right - tacitly feeling the experience of the world through another perspective - though I'm not sure I'd need to read more than a book a month for this

It would be great if each book came with a hierarchy of summaries. A 1000-page book would have a 100 page summary, a 10 page summary, a 1 page summary, and a single paragraph summary. Whatever the right factor is: 3, 5, 8, or 10. If you like any given part, you can go down that branch and read the details.

Absolutely! I completely overlooked it: more diagrams, please! more bulleted lists! more pictures!

In my experience the Cliff Notes distill out all the parts actually worth reading. The talking points tend to be obvious. The devil is in the details

I realized long ago that the rate of change in technology makes it impossible to have a significant knowledge of something as varied as computer science. There are so many avenues to explore from electrical engineering to manufacturing to compiler design, languages, HTML, UX, design and color theory and that's just the surface. It is sad that one person can not possibly have the time to experience all aspects of their craft but it means that specialists become unique and important players.

Which is why it is an important ability being able to find, understand and implement stored knowledge. I mean "ability" in that it is both a human learned ability and an ability of our tools.

Books did this for a long time. Printing improved books by distributing the data cheaply and widely.

But humans also used books as tools to create more and more data. So pretty quickly the data grew to the point where everyone has the data but you cannot see the forest for the trees.

So now the killer app for knowledge is no longer distribution of the data but contextual searching of data.

For better and for worse, the tools that have come along with the information revolution foster what seems to be a much broader, yet more shallow perspective.

For example, lets consider the fact that it takes .19 seconds to find someone's personal distillation of Darwin's Origin of Species. I can now get a summary of one of the great scientific discoveries in less than 1000 characters and be back to reading Facebook updates without blinking an eye.

I didn't read a single word from the original work. I never touched on the years of toil, thought and research that become obvious only after you hear it in Darwin's words. To draw a relevant analogy, its like we are adding layers of abstraction to information. Wikipedia is just the high-level, interpreted view that hides all the nitty gritty details we don't need to worry about anymore. So how often will we need to dive into the inner-workings in the future?

The question becomes is this satisfying? Is it "good enough" to just read the cliff notes? I hate to say it but I think yes. We will end up with an increasing number of "instant experts" who know a little about a lot. And the craftsman - the true specialists - will probably just fade away with the rest of the irrelevant details.

Recent developments allow for efficient consumption of small replicas of big ideas. However if youre seeing life through these summaries and replicas then I think youre losing the work ethic required to create the big ideas.

Reminds me of Umberto Eco's response when asked why he kept such a vast library and how many had he read: He responded (paraphrasing) that "the key wasn't how much I've read, but how much I've yet to read and learn".

As far as I'm concerned abundance is great because there's just so much to learn and be surprised by in the world!

This is exactly what I've been thinking recently about computer science / programming. There's just so much to read / learn / practice / improve. Nice to have it put in perspective. Gotta learn to surrender more.

> Let's do you another favor: Let's further assume you limit yourself to books from the last, say, 250 years. Nothing before 1761.

That's the wrong way to go!! Start with Aristotle, rather, and read only books that have stood the test of time. What would be the point of reading every Kindle "space opera" priced at $0.99?

If you read all of Plutarch, Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Cervantès, you're fine, really.

C.S. Lewis had an interesting argument for why one should read old books:

"Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

[snip] Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.

[snip] To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them."

I read some books of them and did not like them. I am not so much into reading great books as I am into reading books I like. Wasting many hours of my precious time reading books I do not enjoy only to feel smug does not sound like a particularly good idea for me.

The authors I mentioned are thoroughly enjoyable, they're not Kant or Hegel...

Also, in order to know whether you like something or not you have to experience it. You may not like reading (as opposed to watching movies for example), but if you do enjoy reading you cannot not like Plutarch for example?

The thing is, you may enjoy it, but I not so much. I read Shakespeare and Montaigne and they had not impress me as much as some recent hard s-f did. I really like reading books and I see that Dostojewski's, or Hemingway's, or Kafka's etc books are really good, because I have read enough books in my life to be able to distinguish good writers from bad ones to a certain degree, nevertheless reading their books does not give me as much pleasure as reading hard s-f sometimes does, and this is the reason I read books at all -- to feel good. Some people may (and surely do) take pleasure in deconstructing classical writers to pieces, or learning from them what was the zeitgeist back then, or finding hidden senses, but all these things are not for me. That's why I don't think that "you should read authors XXX and YYY, because it is good for the development of your literary taste" is a wise thing to say -- it surely may be, but this may not be the point of reading.

> "you should read authors XXX and YYY, because it is good for the development of your literary taste"

I'm not sure "literary taste" matters much (except for certain professions: (English) teachers and writers mainly), but you yourself seem to be quite happy to have developed one: _I have read enough books in my life to be able to distinguish good writers from bad ones_.

But I don't agree that the point of reading is to "feel good".

There are many ways to "feel good" and if I had to list them, I'm not sure reading would make the top ten — I'm positive it wouldn't make the top five.

To me, the point of reading is to learn something: either something about the world or something about human nature.

Therefore, a good book is a book that contains _new_, genuine information; and that's why I think that starting with the classics is a good idea. "Classics" are where new information was first created, and that's why they became classics.

This comment is the exact embodiment of what the article calls the 'culling', and which it advocates is the wrong way to approach the issue.

Plus, he wasn't saying one should actually skip those books, he was just making the point of how many books there are, and how few of them one can read, even with a lot of devotion.

"he"'s a she: name's Linda.

The point I am making is that it doesn't matter "how many books there are", it only matters how many GOOD books there are.

I think a way to know which books are good before you've read them, is to rely on the "wisdom of the ages"; you may have a better approach (your friends tastes, Amazon recommendations, whatever) but it doesn't change the fact that most books are not worth reading and one should only strive to read the books that are.

Although I would agree that "most books are not worth reading," some might disagree. But the fact remains that one has very limited time. So a more universal way to put it would be "you have to prioritize somehow." Ratings and "classic" status are two possible ways.

I think I read a lot. I also keep a list of the books I think everyone should read. That list includes around 20 titles right now. Twenty out of much, much greater number. Moreover, it seems that the rate at which new books are added to the list is slowing down.

The article is a typical NPR piece in that the unproven, unexplained assumptions that the author makes in the process of writing are by several orders of magnitude more significant than the thesis of the text. The thesis seems to be "there are lots of books, and you won't read them all". The assumption is that all books have equal value.

Frankly, if someone believes that any book has equal value to any other book, I wouldn't much care about that person's take on literature. To me, it's akin to listening to a "mathematician" who says that all proofs are valid.

My point is, the number of books that I would really miss reading is very finite and manageable. My problem isn't in reading them all, but in finding them all amidst the ever increasing amounts of garbage.

The obvious question: what is your list?

In "Genius" Harold Bloom lists 100 authors. I trust his judgement more than mine so I'm slowly working my way through his choices.

I would gladly discuss it, but I don't want to post like this (i.e. just to prove something).

I believe the article's author refers to this as culling.

She spoke about filtering out unread books, but I'm speaking about books that I've read personally.

I'm going to sound really illiterate but who reads two books a week? I read a ton, as most programmers do but I read perhaps one or two [fictional] books PER YEAR.

I have day job and a side project that I probably spend at least a couple of hours a day on and I still read on average two books a week.

On holiday I usually take seven or eight books for two weeks - depending on the type of books.

You may want to reconsider when you read. When reading non-fiction, I find reading for just enough time to get a clear idea of a concept that is being described to me allows for better integration and aha! moments during the day. So, I find it beneficial to read them when my life is busy.

The fiction books seem to be needed, for me, to not exhaust myself on non-fiction. The best time for me to read these is when I am less busy and have down time.

I don't find myself exhausted by non-fiction and I also don't consider coding text books/articles/tutorials/documentation to be "books". When I say books I mean fictional texts. I find myself exhausted by fiction while I read, it feels like such a waste of time to me to read something that holds little to no value to me in the real world so it really needs to be an author that I like, thus only one or two books a year. I know many people are going to disagree with me but I just don't see the value.

I manage 1 or 2 a week -- much easier since the Kindle came along. My father, who goes down to his library each week, knocks off between 3-5 every week like clockwork, fiction and non-fiction.

I find talking to him enormously educational. In so many episodes of history, for example, he's read about it from multiple perspectives and can talk about them.

I usually do, but then again, I don't have a TV or watch movies. It's a matter of choice.

It also depends on the writer and genre - for example, I could read several Terry Pratchett books in a week, but slug through a heavy novel.

I know I'm missing lots of good entertainment, but TV series, for instance, always seemed like a huge commitment of time for me.

I'd shoot for at least one a month if you can manage it. You're missing out for certain.

I don't miss so much all the things of today as all the things of tomorrow that I will never see the glimpse of.

It saddens me whenever I think about this for a moment. Only hope is that humanity achieves singularity before I die which is in my opinion not likely.

Excellent article, although it seems to assume that the average quality of content has stayed constant over time. I don't think that's the case. Take music, for example. In the past, we were limited in the types of sounds we could make. Nowadays, with the help of computers, musicians can create any sound they can imagine. A similar thing has happened with television and movies. Technology has allowed a wider range of content to be created. It's also made it easier to create high-quality content.

I didn't mean to start a debate about great artists in history. As a less emotionally-charged analogy, consider math. There are extremely well-known and respected mathematicians from centuries ago. That said, we have better tools today (both new forms of math and computer-assisted proofs) that let us solve more complicated problems than ever before. If the Newton had access to MATLAB or Mathematica, he probably would have done even greater things. Likewise, if Beethoven had GarageBand or a Tenori-on, he could have created even more interesting music.

There are a couple places where this analogy breaks down. Status matters a lot in art. Also, in math the end-product is the main thing that matters, while in art the creation process factors into its impressiveness. A sculpture hand-chiseled out of marble is more impressive than one made by a 3D printer, even if they are indistinguishable to human eyes.

Still, I dare say that if Bach created his works today, they would be appreciated about as much as other high-quality contemporary composers (such as Hans Zimmer).

Did I just compare artists across history? I'm such a hypocrite.

Interestingly enough, if you read The Beatles Anthology they make the case that they were so good _because_ they had little else to do.

When we talk great composers, you might argue about Beethoven vs. Mozart vs. Bach... but would you throw anyone from the last 100 years into the mix?

"would you throw anyone from the last 100 years into the mix?"

Carl Orff, John Williams, Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer.

For more individual achievements, Zack Hemsey for "Mind Heist" (aka the song from Inception) and Clint Mansell for "Lux Aeterna" (aka the Requiem for a Dream song).

<doublecough>Copland, Barber, Ned Rorem, James MacMillan, Britten, George Crumb, Joseph Schwantner, John Adams, William Bolcom, John Corigliano, Dominick Argento, Charles Ives, ...

There's a lot more to modern composition than film music and Carmina Burana.

Sergei Rachmaninoff should be added to this list since I've yet to encounter any pianist who didn't have a glowing reaction to any of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos. Especially Piano Concerto #2 which ranks up there as being one of my top 10 favorite pieces of music.

Not to mention an incredible array of composers from the non-Western world.

For me, the track "Time" from the Inception soundtrack is mind-blowing.

Listen to it with good quality earphones and tell me it doesn't send chills down your spine.


EDIT: link

<cough> Stravinsky?

scanning through the text, your name jumps out at me, which makes me ask myself what kind of HN consumer would call themselves that... to which the answer is, one with high average points karma

Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Debussy, Ravel, Fauré, Janacek, Elgar, Mahler, Manuel de Falla, Sibelius, Gershwin, just to mention some of the major ones.


Absolutely. I might name a dozen or more musicians still alive today who have produced extraordinarily compelling works which speak to the heart and soul as effectively as the classical masters.

There are what, seven times as many people alive today as were in 1800? It's pure silliness to propose that the geniuses of art and science are dead. To the contrary, as it is so effortless today to produce art, works of incredible beauty are common enough to no longer be particularly notable. Of course that could be good or bad depending on your perspective... But I'm gonna say good.

Interesting point. Also the economic surplus is much greater today-- far fewer people in the past had the luxury time to pursue the artistic.

Yes. But there are so many of them from so many different genres of music that being as skilled as Beethoven isn't as rare as it used to be. If it looks like nobody stands above the rest as clearly as Mozart or Beethoven once did, it is because the top end has become crowded, not because it was depopulated.

If you're talking in terms of technical skill, sure. If you're talking in terms of quantity of quality output, that's not quite so indisputable. You're not suggesting we're awash in 'Fur Elise's, are you?

If you'd said "Symphony #9", I might have granted you the point. But "Fur Elise" isn't particularly more complicated than a well-written rock or pop song, and yes, I'd suggest we are indeed awash with those. (Even if they only represent 0.01% of the music in those fields...)

To misquote Bob Dylan, "Beethoven could have written Mr. Tambourine Man. Dylan could not have written Fur Elise".

No, Beethoven could not have written Tambourine Man. Beethoven was a man of his time, and music was bound by strict rules that controlled what was acceptable in terms of harmonies, and physically bound in what instrumentation he could write. Beethoven pushed out the rules a little bit but he was not anywhere near where Tambourine Man is; the very concept of the modern I-V-IV progression would be enough to give musicians of the time the vapors.

Part of the reason the classical musicians were so voluminous in their output is that their rules were so constraining that once you wrote down the melody, half the work was already done for you; there were a very limited number of choices left to you. I enjoy Mozart a lot, but at the same time listening to him with modern ears it is obvious that he has a very strong signature style, and that he could simply crank out the tunes using that style in a manner not entirely dissimilar from how one cranks out autotuned pop hits using standard harmonies and singers that can't actually sing. Mozart's results were better but there's more method overlap than you might think.

I think when people say that all the good composers are in the past, they are really just socially signalling. It's not actually true. Plenty of spectacularly good people are around today, and like I said before, if they seem less unique it's because the top end has become crowded, not depopulated.

Despite having no physical limitations of relevance, Mozart would never have written even The Flight of the Valkaries or much of anything else Wagner did, let alone Debussy, or Gershwin. All the classical musicians, geniuses though they were, were also very very confined in their style. They did not exhaust the space of good music; they only took the first hill of what we'd call modern music. It is a disservice to the many that have come after them to pretend they were uniquely virtuous; they were merely uniquely first.

Thanks for missing the point.

I didn't. I actually disagree with the entire premise of your quote, fundamentally.

Actually, I think you took the quote far too literally. Dylan was merely trying to say that Beethoven was the better composer, not that he would have literally written "Tambourine Man" or something similar.

Where does complicated come into it? Didn't Beethoven write his Fifth just to show that complicated was utterly beside the point?

Béla Bartók

Not high-quality, high-resolution.

And I will argue that good art is resolution independent. So we are creating a lot more stuff, and some of it is even good. Probably more good stuff than we used to create, but orders of magnitude more unremarkable drivel. You probably wouldn't be missing much by sticking to the classics.

When you think of it, the human spirit is a combination in the human brain. That is, you can create a human inside a computer. You'll just need powerful and may be crazy processing power. Now if we figure out a way to read the human brain configuration and data, and then transfer it to another body (the same body as the person) that you constructed it biologically, you can make the same person alive again.

I'm dedicating my whole life in an attempt to live again.

the human spirit is a combination in the human brain

Is it? How do you know?

A huge number of neurons interacting with each other giving you the ability to see, sense, hear... With a network that loops and give you illusion of your existence. The human spirit is just another human invention that was made to explain the human existence. I don't find actually any clear definition to it.

Yes, but the actual being human is the result of a long time of evolution of the physical human body i.e., there are no indications you can recreate a human mind without having a human body attached to it. This is in fact a tough question in philosophy and cognitive neuroscience (see mind-body problem).

In 99.9% of things someone might be asked to explain, it's noncontroversial that at the bottom level it all runs on physics. csomar is extending that well-warranted assumption to one of the places it's sometimes contested.

If you want to miss as little as possible, find the most advanced technical material you can possibly find that interests you and read all the pre-requisite material until you can read and fully understand it. That way, you take the most direct path to at least having the tools to understand everything that interests you.


The true joy of life is the trip, not the destination

Oddly enough, the more I read the more I become convinced that this may actually not be the case. Technology and our ability to effectively process information is growing at an exponential rate – of course, so is the amount of information.

But logically, there will be a point in the future where the output of humanity in an hour will be greater than the sum total of all human knowledge prior to 2012. Some fans of the Mayan calendar say this date is December 21st, 2012. Kurzweil says more like 2045. Really hard to say, IMO. But still, if we have the power to create that kind of information then we'll have to be able to take in a lot more, so I'm not too worried about missing everything. I'm just concerned about the information pertinent to my health, career, and loved ones, which is quite readily available thanks to sites like this.

"...there will be a point in the future where the output of humanity in an hour will be greater than the sum total of all human knowledge prior to 2012"

How much of that output is celebrity gossip and tweets about coffee and coverage of gadgets that will soon be forgotten?

I'd say much of the "increase" is just us putting into writing the kind of daily chatter that ancient people didn't bother to write down. It just increases the noise-to-signal ratio for future historians.

Certainly you must be right that noise is increasing faster than signal, but signal is still growing massively if you look at research being done, etc.

Also, not to be ignored, as stated, is our ability to find knowledge is making the filtering process far better than before.

Sure, an ancient library didn't contain a lot of celebrity gossip, but good luck finding what you need amongst the available works - sans anything but the librarian's best remembrance of what a book contains and its value.

Consider the alternative for a moment: You can read everything. So can everybody else.

Sortof boring in the end, isn't it?

I fully trust that I will bump into things, ideas and people relevant to my life without explicitly sorting through nearly everything or filtering out the crap.

I've found that it works well. It also converges: by not filtering out crap I'm not in contact with crap and I see very little if any crap in my life. And whenever I find a new thing, most of the time it truly is something wonderful and comes up pretty much at the right moment when I'm most receptive to it.

I would feel very anxious if I kept thinking and worrying myself about what I might be missing.

Great works (be they books, movies or art) should be treated the same way life is: as one more step on your journey.

Overplanning will make your choices too selective, thus making you knowledgeable in some areas and totally ignorant in others (most of them).

Underplanning will make your journey unfocused, conferring you some knowledge on everything, but not much else.

So, I guess we should strive for a balance, but what this balance represents is distinct for everyone.

I think saying 'think of all the wonderful books I won't have time to read' is a bit like saying 'think of all the great wine in the world I'll never get a chance to drink!' It's something to enjoy in your liesure time, you don't need to worry about consuming it exhaustively. The only sad thing would be if you never had any liesure time at all (you missed all your opportunities to have some).

It's leisure I think.

Without exaggeration I can say that one line of Proust is worth more to me than 99.9% of all books out there. I am all for being open to "different experiences" (ie. reading outside the classical canon), but I have learned to be picky.

Experience is not about quantity, it's about those magical moment when your world expands in a violent flight, and about learning to love the world in new ways.

And to think I'm going to miss out on something I'll never know because I've read something about missing so many things.

There's just too much out there. Try to make things that replicate (subjective|probabilistic) good in the universe. Also this:


(It applies beyond academia, too)

Nothing before 1761. This cuts out giant, enormous swaths of literature...

I don't think it cuts out all that much. I would assume that the number of books published before 1761 would be a tiny fraction of a percentage of all books ever published.

I've often wondered if we have "enough". Enough movies, enough books, enough poetry. More than several lifetimes' worth.

Why not stop? Replay from, say, 1910, in an infinite loop. Nobody would notice, and we could all get on with other things.

I think Hollywood has caught on to this idea :)

Producing a good "creative work" is a useful enough signal that it's not a practice likely to die out: http://sarkology.wordpress.com/2011/04/11/why-creative-domai...

"But what we've seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can't change that." Powerful

I've just been discussing this point with my daughter a couple of weekends ago. The same I suspect applies to all the cool programming languages I wanted to learn.

Imagine all the things that are as of yet unknown that we will miss. This dwarfs the knowable to infinity.

why would I want to bother trying to exhaust the sphere of possible human experiences before the heat death of the universe when there is a much larger space of possible modes of existence?

Oh I guess this article was written by someone who plans on dying :p

Now I feel much better about missing Mad Men.

And the ironic fact is that I'm going to miss almost everything in that article because it is presented as faint grey text on a white background.


(too bright, didn't read)

As far as classical literature goes, if you're read Balzac, Stendhal and Tolstoy then you've read them all. Problem solved :)

... and the two giants of western literature Shakespeare and Dante. We can't gloss over Joyce and Proust. And "Don Quixote", surely we can't miss that. Maybe Milton. Montaigne? And the Greeks, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides at least. Molière and Goethe...

Very well said. Great article.

Time marches without apology.

Forget books, I feel this way just about The Simpsons.

A friend of mine (raised Jewish, but deist/agnostic) came to the conclusion that the most reasonable cosmology is one in which each person reincarnates as every human ever to live before passing on to the next world or becoming a god. This probably rules out free will, but it gives hope that, maybe, we do get to experience at least the entire human world... we just don't have the luxury of perceiving it all at once. It also solves the karma/ethics problem neatly.

This is a tough realization, in any case. Even a million-year lifespan wouldn't help, because all of the books we were reading now would be likely to fade if we were to live another million years. As humans, we're innately finite in all sorts of important ways (e.g. attention, memory) that have nothing to do with lifespan.

I have to agree with the people who've said that "it's the journey, not the destination". It's all we can control, and it's what we actually experience. As a deist and Buddhist, I've often wondered why God wanted us to evolve in a world where lives are so short and death happens all the time, instead of one in which humans could get a more reasonable 10,000 years (or process information and experience 100 times faster, which would have the same effect). It's infinitely frustrating and reminiscent of Sisyphus (probably, in fact, a Greek metaphor for the reincarnation of the spiritually lazy, noting that ancient Greeks did believe in reincarnation) but it also has a certain beauty to it: getting to go through childhood and to re-learn all of the great things in this world again, and again, and again.

If you choose to believe that the world was created by an all-good, all-knowing God then you must believe that the world God created is the best possible of all worlds. God would be capable of nothing else in that scenario. Whatever your beliefs I've always thought that was an interesting concept to illuminate 'what if' discussions.

>If you choose to believe that the world was created by an all-good, all-knowing God then you must believe that the world God created is the best possible of all worlds.


Since when does an "all good, all knowing" entity get backed into a corner where it itself relinquishes free will? Said God could have easily created this world with the intent that it is far from perfect for a very specific reason. The pain one assumes in this world is evil and horrible is only accurate if one also assumes that it has no further purpose.

It's like saying that all the difficulty in learning to ride a bike could not be allowed by a truly loving parent. That's clearly false.

I think you missed the point.

If the pain is to a higher purpose that in itself provides for a greater good (like riding a bike) then the net effect is a better world. The operative idea being that pain and struggle allow us to become better.

God didn't relinquish free will here, but he can't or won't choose to make a shoddy world. It wouldn't be all-good or all-knowing. For a better explanation reference C.S. Lewis.

>then the net effect is a better world.

A child riding a bike can only see the failure and difficulty of learning, not them winning the Tour de France. If we are all in the process of learning, would we even know a "better world" if we saw it, and is a "better world" the outcome that matters?

Well even the most lenient interpretation of the old testament leads one to believe that God is angry and vengeful, especially if not respected. I think the idea that God only exists if he's a nice guy is a bit of a strawman argument promulgated by atheists.

To a large extent, the "God of the Gaps" argument often made by skeptics is quite true. I say this as a deist who believes in a God. Nonetheless, it's obvious that throughout most of history, people have ascribed to God whatever they didn't understand (weather, geography, biology) and then removed "him" from the explanation once more precise understanding was available. In this light, it makes sense that people in the Bronze Age would believe in a God who's somewhat of a dick. If you believe that God is omnipotent and interventionist, and then watch innocent people get sick or trampled by elephants, you're going to think God is a jerk. We're more philosophically evolved than we were at that time, however, and can consider more possibilities that wouldn't have even occurred to people before the advent of modern philosophy circa 800-400 BC.

I believe in a God who is omnibenevolent but electively non-omnipotent on account of deliberate non-interventionism. I believe that free will exists, and possibly at a very low level (even a quantum level, perhaps). Free will makes the future nondeterministic and therefore it makes sense that God would pursue an evolutionary plan that is robust no matter how that free will is exercised. And since all the suffering and "evil" we experience comes from being evolved organisms at a rather low point in our arc, this doesn't contradict the concept of a benevolent God, especially if "he" settles the score at some point in the future (e.g. by allowing us to reincarnate into better forms, either in this world after they are produced by evolution and technology, or in another).

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