There’s that classic Twilight Zone episode about the bookwormish little gentleman who has a list long as his arm of books he’s always wanted to read, but who is constantly thwarted by the day-to-day demands of society and pressures of life. He happens to be down in the basement library stacks when a nuclear war breaks out. He emerges to find every other human being gone. After this revelation sinks in, he heads back to the library. Cut to hours or days later: he has amassed piles of books in the order he plans to — finally — read them all.
And then…the unexpected happens. The ol’ TZ twist. In this case, his glasses fall off, and he accidentally steps on them. In the closing shot, he stands there, blind as a bat without his reading glasses, with a look of utter despair on his face that dwarfs any emotions he may have felt on realizing that the rest of his fellow creatures were gone. With the books, even authors long dead were still with him. Now even they have been wrested away, leaving him truly alone.
Rod Serling provides his usual wry commentary in the coda of the closing narration, but everyone who’s seen that episode (“Time Enough at Last”, 1959, starring Burgess Meredith) remembers that final scene — within the context of the story’s simple little narrative, that pair of broken glasses is somehow, improbably, more devastating than the destruction of the human race.
Despite the fact that one of my favorite English professors lambasted the naiveté and lack of logic of that particular episode, it packs a punch. Dr. Oakes was deriding the weakness inherent in certain twist endings, admonishing us writers-in-training to avoid such twists, or to at least think them through more thoroughly. His basic condemnation of the false pathos of that ending was simply this: the guy has all the time in the world; surely he can feel his way through his blurry surroundings to the nearest optical shoppe and find, at the very least, a near match to his lens prescription. This is not the annihilation of his dreams, just a momentary setback.
He had a point, even if we overlook the hokey implausibility of the plot’s premise. And yet, it has continued to resonate with people down through the decades; it’s still cited as one of the series’ seminal episodes.
Just why that should be is pretty obvious. Many of us can relate to the guy. His plight, emotionally, is symbolic of something we all feel: the disproportionate ratio of time to ambition. Having so much we want to read, to see, to do, to be, and realizing ever more starkly with each passing day that it just ain’t gonna happen. We’re never going to get to the end of that list, because it keeps growing as our timeline dwindles.
You’d be surprised how many times someone has expressed to me some version of this thought: “You know, it wouldn’t be so bad to be put in prison for a year or two, if it wasn’t a horrible prison and if they gave me full access to books. Man, then I could get caught up…”
A number of years ago (maybe ten?), I signed up for the Netflix subscription service to borrow DVDs by mail. It proved to be a fun diversion scouring their tens of thousands of titles and filling up my “queue” with ones I’d like to watch. I soon discovered there is a cap to the queue, somewhere around 500 movies. Then you get a message along the lines of “You must remove some titles before you can add any more to your queue.”
So for ten years I’ve chipped away, but the queue has not gotten any emptier. This is because I add films at roughly the rate I rent them. In fact, I think I’ve rarely dipped below the top five or so on the list (due to the option when you add a movie to “Move to the Top of the Queue”). So there’s a rotating list of about five titles at the top, with 495 shows underneath that I probably never will get to. Occasionally scrolling down to the nether regions of the queue is like visiting a Vault of Forgotten Things, seeing films and documentaries and TV shows listed there that I’d forgotten even existed (in some cases, not being able to recall why I had an interest in seeing them). Yes, that Netflix queue is another constant reminder of mortality.
We have ourselves an overabundance of riches.
Over the years, people in various social contexts have commented on my vast stores of pop culture trivia, and it’s true that I can hold my own in conversation on topics ranging from urban legends to Saturday Night Live. I can cleverly allude to Bob Dylan or Battlestar Galactica. I can distinguish the rock group The Animals from the Muppet known as Animal. My knowledge may be broad, but delve into any one medium or genre, and you quickly realize the depths that are there.
I’ve watched a good deal of science-fiction and fantasy television, but longer is the list of shows I’ve not seen (Babylon 5 and Farscape are high on the queue). I’ve seen more sci-fi, fantasy, and horror films than most people I know, but again, so many gaps.
Same with literature. Been devouring speculative fiction since I could read: I’ve read some Robert E. Howard, even more Fritz Leiber, and nearly everything Edgar Rice Burroughs ever wrote. But I’ve never yet read Michael Moorcock or Karl Edward Wagner (I know, I know: those two are almost requirements for the bona fides to write for Black Gate, right?). I follow some contemporary authors, too, from Gene Wolfe to Tim Powers. But a friend keeps recommending Steven Erikson, and I’ve got this series by E.E. Knight on my shelf, and the new books by my acquaintances Howard Andrew Jones and John R. Fultz also look like a real blast. And a dozen, no, a hundred more. There’s so much. Will I ever get to all, or even most, of them?
If I watched a new film every single day for a year, as film critic Michael Adams did for his book Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies (which I reviewed for Black Gate here), that wouldn’t even empty the Netflix queue — and, like a hole dug in sand, it keeps filling back in anyway. If I consistently read a book a week, I’d knock 52 off the To-Read list. Hardly make a dent. And that would short-shrift some other area of interest, like catching up on television shows.
You grow resigned to the fact that you’re just not going to experience some of the good stuff you know is out there. Not unless, like Michael Keaton in Multiplicity, you can find a way to make a few clones of yourself. Or, like Doctor Who, you can regenerate and hang around for a millennium (which still wouldn’t work, because by the end of that time there’d be a thousand years worth of new stuff added to the queue).
I have a weakness for best-of lists. Perhaps it’s a symptom of being so aware that I’m not going to get to everything: Look, here’s someone who has parsed it down a little for me, claiming “This is the stuff you really must not miss!”
So I’ve downloaded all the American Film Institute Top 100 lists; I pick up those Rolling Stone special issues compiling best rock albums; and on my shelf are books with such titles as 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die, 101 Sci-Fi Movies You Must See Before You Die, 1000 Places to See Before You Die (have to get wealthy before you can really tackle that one), and 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die.
Working my way through those 1000 Recordings, I picked up a used copy of the landmark rap album Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Listened to it, checked it off the list. I forgot to eject the disc from the car stereo, though, so my wife was in for a shock when she started up the car and “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F*** Wit” came blasting out of the speakers.
I diligently check off each item I’ve read or heard or seen. I may have more checkmarks than some, but it’s akin to growing in wisdom: Socrates famously said, “I know that I know nothing”; likewise, the more one experiences, the more one is aware of how much one has not experienced. Reading a few good graphic novels begets the awareness of other good graphic novels not yet opened. Delving into a little jazz exposes oneself to the reputations of all these other jazz artists you’d never heard of. And so it goes.
Some people can limit themselves, narrow their interest down to one specific area. So they become a jazz devotee, or a horror-film buff. Not me. I want to experience a little of everything. Like the guy who has to sample everything at the buffet, I want a taste of human expression in all its forms and contexts (maybe not ballet), although my tastes do skew to the imaginative, speculative-fiction end of the spectrum.
As a result of my wide and varied grazing in the fields of the popular arts, inevitably a lay person will get the impression I know quite a bit about, say, jazz; conversely, a true student of jazz will come along and be flabbergasted at how spotty is my knowledge of jazz (hey, I watched all nineteen hours of that Ken Burns Jazz documentary — I just can’t remember all those names!). You can fake it until you go toe to toe with a true aficionado.
I popped up Netflix Streaming on the TV the night after Christmas, after the kids were tucked in bed. Noticed that 160 episodes of Dark Shadows were available. I knew it by reputation, wanted to check it out someday. A 1960s half-hour daytime soap, its paranormal elements revolving around the vampire Barnabas Collins and his haunted clan made it a popular hit and a precursor to many later shows in that supernatural tradition. Although it only aired for five years, it was a daily, so it amassed 1225 episodes (more than the entire 50 years of Doctor Who or the combined Star Trek franchise, its Wikipedia entry notes).
When I get into a new series, I’m a bit of a completist, so I thought it’d be interesting to watch them all. However, “season 1: episode 1” on Netflix is actually episode 210 of the original series. They basically begin the show with the coming of Barnabas, scrapping what came before as preamble. That’s probably for the best, I thought, because it was the sheer length of the series that had daunted me from ever watching it before.
Over the next few nights, I got 10 episodes in — enough to get me hooked. That’s when I noticed the little note at the bottom of the Series List screen: “Available until Jan. 1.” Don’t think I’m going to get the other 150 episodes watched before then. Ah well. That’s another undertaking that will likely fall by the wayside, never to be resumed.
As we ring in the New Year, I hope you enjoy a lot of good stuff in 2014. Don’t waste your time on the bad* , but savor — really savor — and celebrate the good. There’s an awful lot of it out there. More than you’ll ever know.
[ *Even the bad can be good, though, if you enjoy it with friends and either some sarcastic robots or some alcohol. ]
Happy New Year