Nothing more than three days old

I was feeling a bit under the weather yesterday, and I ended up doing mostly nothing as a consequence. This, in a happy coincidence, was also a day on which there were two sports events of note, and I got to watch all of one and parts of the other.

The second one had a sense of inevitability to it, and Rafael Nadal won his 14th French Open title, and his 22nd Grand Slam overall, underlining his status as the best tennis player ever. The first one didn’t have a sense of inevitability to it, and was on that account more interesting to watch. This was the fourth day of the Test match between England and New Zealand, and given how calamitous England’s batting has been in recent times, there was no guarantee that they would be able to chase down the required number of runs.

I’m happy to report that they did chase it down, and Root, somewhat like Nadal, was able to underline his status as the best Test batsman going around at the moment. But the point of this little sports update was to highlight how the conclusion, in the case of the cricketing contest, took well over three days. This, of course, has also been a complaint in recent times about men’s tennis matches as well – that they tend to go on for too long in some cases.

I don’t want to get into a debate about whether the rules for both cricket and tennis need to change, at least for the moment. But I do wish to point out that every now and then, savoring something over a large period of time is a good thing, and that we, at the margin, are perhaps doing lesser of this than we should.

T20’s over test matches, YouTube clips over television series, and television series over movies. Blog posts over books, and tweets over blog posts. Myself included, to be clear! Our attention spans are dwindling, and we have to fight the urge to take short sips of content optimized for brevity, rather than make the time for extended periods of concentration.

And I’ll be the first to admit that Twitter is a great way to consume a large amount of content in a very short period of time. A T20 game is, among other things, easier to consume in terms of time spent, and given the lives that we lead, that isn’t an entirely bad thing. And similarly, it is a nice feeling to be able to learn something in a short ten minute video on YouTube. All happily conceded as being excellent points.

But the problem (at least for me, and maybe for you as well) is that we end up consuming far too much of relatively short and relatively new content, and that may not necessarily be An Entirely Good Thing.

I cannot remember where I read or heard this quote that I am about to share with you. I think it was by Jonathan Haidt, but I might be wrong about that too (and if I am, my apologies!). It goes something like this: “we are reading more than ever before, but none of what we’re reading is more than three days old”.

Again, this is entirely from memory, and I have been unable to find the original quote online, but it is a quote that makes a lot of sense.

Robert Pirsig said something very similar in a book that I really like reading (and rereading):

What is in mind is a sort of Chautauqua—that’s the only name I can think of for it—like the traveling tent-show Chautauquas that used to move across America, this America, the one that we are now in, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster-paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. The old channels cannot contain it and in its search for new ones there seems to be growing havoc and destruction along its banks. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated. “What’s new?” is an interesting and broadening eternal question, but one which, if pursued exclusively, results only in an endless parade of trivia and fashion, the silt of tomorrow. I would like, instead, to be concerned with the question “What is best?,” a question which cuts deeply rather than broadly, a question whose answers tend to move the silt downstream.

Pirsig, Robert M.. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 7). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.

I’ve bene thinking deeply about how and what kind of content I consume, and am trying to change its composition. Watching (and rewatching) old movies, listening to old songs, reading older books and older papers is all part of the plan, and I hope to share some of this with you over time as well.

I hope this change lasts where I am concerned, and while I would be loathe to recommend, let alone insist, that you do the same, I would urge you to think about whether there is a recency bias in your content consumption.

But speaking for myself, I think I need to consume some of the more timeless works of art, and I hope to do just that in the months to come.


And two recommendations to end with:

An excellent series on art appreciation that I am watching with my daughter:

And a selection of songs that will help you get started on learning more about the advent of Texas blues.

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