Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hundreds and thousands

Have you ever wandered into a bookshop and considered, instead of a novel or a biography or a cookbook or a computer manual, buying one of those gigantic tomes entitled One Thousand Somethings You Must Do Before You Die?
Like 1,000 Books you must Read; 1,000 Films you must Watch; 1,000 Albums you must Hear (as long as they haven’t been smeared with strawberry jam); 1,000 Recipes you must Try but then Find You’re Missing One Vital Ingredient When All The Shops are Shut; 1,000 Paintings you must Nod Wisely at and Pretend You Understand Modern Art; 1,000 Buildings you must Dash Round While the Kids Complain that this is So Boring and When are we Going to the Beach?
Do. Not. Buy. A. Single. One.
For they will take over your life.
Take the first of the breed: One Thousand Books... Now let’s do the math. Assume a reading speed of a book a fortnight, with War and Peace and Thomas the Tank Engine averaging each other out. With 52 weeks in a year, that makes around 25 books a year (you get time off for birthdays and Christmas) or 100 books in four years.
And after this Charles Atlas course in world literature you’ll reach The End of that very last book after 40 years of solid reading.
Unless it’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino, in which case you’ll never get past the beginning.
Assuming you started your trek at the age of 10, you’ll now be an incredibly well-educated 50-year-old. And assuming you live on to a good age (and let’s face it, you’re not going to have much time for life-shortening debauchery with all that reading to get through) you’ve got another 30 years left to get polish off the Albums, Recipes, Paintings and Buildings.
It’s not going to happen, is it?
Maybe albums would be a more manageable challenge. They take less time to listen to than books do to read, and thanks to the power of iTunes you can download all 1,000 of them for the trivial sum of £7,990.
Come to think of it, you might not even have to spend that much. In our house we already have pretty much every single album in the book. Or we do up to around 1980.
Then there’s a gap of about 15 years which is the main cause of your humble columnist’s embarrassed silences during the music round at the pub quiz, when he sits staring into his pint and hoping that the landlord is old enough to remember Steely Dan.
And from 1995 up to the present day, our musical tastes are represented for the most part by the collected works of Now That’s What I Call... supplemented with a couple of ambient trance CDs which were freebies from work and whose perpetrators are probably now gainfully employed as Pontins Bluecoats. (No shame in that: these days you’ve got to follow the work.)
Let’s face it, though, there hasn’t been much good music since 1980 in any case. Thrash metal, death metal, Britpop, grunge – they all sound more or less the same when you’ve reached 536 in the top 1,000.
As for all those recipes, well everyone in our house prefers Dad’s toad in the hole to pigs’ trotters en feuilleté robed in their own aspic and strewn with a whortleberry and lilac jus. Just.
And as for the iconic cultural artefacts, given the present strength of every other currency in the entire world against the pound, nobody is going to be travelling further than Somerset this year. And the last time we looked there wasn’t a Taj Mahal in Minehead, unless it was an Indian restaurant.
No, these thousand-item lists are no more than a great big con.
They shame you into buying them by giving you an uneasy sense of intellectual, cultural or culinary inferiority.
And it’s only after you’ve shelled out that it dawns on you what you’ve actually spent good money on: an advert for back-catalogue albums, for preposterously complex dinner party failures, for exotic destinations way outside your budget, or – the most cunning con of all – for even more books.
This is the bloggy version of my Bath Chronicle Column.

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