I got briefly obsessed last year by the observation that at a rate of one book a week between the ages of 5 and 80, it will only be possible to read 3,900 books in a lifetime. This is a little over one tenth of one percent of all the books currently in print – obviously an overall figure that continues to grow at an astonishing rate. Around the same time, I came across this odd little insight into the understanding AC Grayling has of the finitude of his own life:
As a shake-up, the philosopher AC Grayling is fond of reminding people that the average span of human life is less than 1,000 months. “If a third of them you are asleep and a third you’re in Tesco’s,” he says, “the other third, about 25 years, is left to you to live well.”
Much as I despise the man, it’s an orientation towards life which resonates with me. The reason that quantifying the number of books it will likely be possible to read in a lifetime struck such a chord with me (apart from the fact that I don’t naturally tend to think quantitatively and it just hadn’t occurred to me to place a number on it) was because I’d long noticed that my ‘to read’ list was becoming ever more problematic. At first it was a list. Then it was a stack. Now it’s a heap. This is a photo I took around last Christmas:
Six months on and the heap is twice the size. Or perhaps it’s two heaps – I’m foregoing the impulse to make a geeky philosophers joke about the sorites paradox… my point is that it keeps growing and that this invites explanation. It may just be that I have a ‘book problem’. In some ways I clearly do, both in terms of my continuing to acquire them at a rate faster than I can read them and the problem of determining the ‘right’ thing to be reading when there’s so much from which to choose e.g. I recently found myself obsessively reading a 600 page biography unrelated to any research work at a point where I was in the final stages of writing a paper and should have been focusing my reading upon that task. Prioritisation is hard and so too is committing to reading a particular book when there’s always a further pile waiting for me that I’ve already selected from a much broader pool of cultural variety.
However I think this example from my own life reflects a broader process. As soon as I try and write about my ‘book problem’ seriously I inevitably start using words like ‘prioritisation’, ‘commitment’, ‘selection’ and ‘variety’ – invoking social theoretical concepts that have been integral to my PhD research. Part of the problem is that my capacity to identify potential reading material and my inclination to select it both tend to increase with my reading and associated practices. I become more attuned to following references. As I read more, I read more literary publications (like the LRB and the culture bit of the New Statesman which I tended to skip in my early 20s) and identify more books to read, in turn inclining me to attend further to these sources of information about new books to read. The frame of reference I bring to books expands and so too does the range of what I extract from the books I read, broadening the range of things I might read in future and what I might take from them.
This is all taking place against the background of a necessarily finite lifespan. Time is literally running out. However our awareness of this finitude is always conceptually and culturally mediated. This might be a statement of the obvious but I think it’s very interesting to consider the implications of this for the variable ways in which we understand that finitude at different points in our life. One interesting way of looking at this is to consider ways in which it can be represented. This illustration from Wait But Why represents this in a way I find very powerful:
My point is that there is an existential challenge objectively encountered in the finitude of the human lifespan but that philosophical approaches to understanding this can often be insufficiently sensitive to the social and cultural factors shaping the ways in which people within a given social setting actually attempt to elude or build upon these inherent constraints. I think the mundane challenges of ‘time running out’ offer a very interesting way in which we can connect the everyday dimension to temporal finitude to the biographical dimension inherent in the limitation of the lifespan. I’ve talked about my ‘books problem’ simply because it’s familiar to me rather than it necessarily being a particularly typical or interesting example of what I’m suggesting is a broader trend.
However the lifespan itself is not fixed. Beyond the social and cultural factors shaping how it is understood, we have the similarly social and cultural factors shaping its temporal extension. Social institutions, relations, practices and ideas all contribute to conditioning the extent of the lifespan in complex and interconnected ways. So too does technology, though I’d suggest never in a way that can be abstracted from the relational framework within which technological interventions are enacted (the closest I can think of in relation to this is a nuclear destruction launched by one person accidentally pressing a button).
The social theorist Harmut Rosa distinguishes between the time structures of everyday life, life time and that of the epoch in which they life. He argues that all persons continually struggle towards a degree of synchrony between these three dimensions to temporal experience. I think this is a really helpful perspective through which to address these issues. It’s from this perspective that I find the analysis of things like my ‘book problem’ so interesting – in identifying the mechanisms which lead to the intensification of the problem rather than its abatement, we get a fine-grained perspective on the temporal dynamics of the broader social system.
It also helps us understand what goes on in people’s lives when the struggle for synchrony backfires. A sudden awareness of mortality at the biographical level inculcates hedonism (live faster, live more) that proves destabilising at the level of everyday life. Or a concern to do work that matters leads to a day-to-day routines deprived of pleasures and so proves unsustainable. The strategies people adopt in the face of this central question (“my life is short, how do I make the most of it?”) necessarily play out in the three dimensions that Rosa delineates even if the person themselves does not recognise them. In fact many of the interesting unintended consequences emerge from the frequent disjuncture between the objectivity of these temporal dimensions and their subjective (mis)recognition. Things like productivity culture and self-help books can also be analysed in relation to a struggle for synchrony, as can their many failings. So too can religious practices which regiment time and social institutions which provide temporal structures that negate the existential pangs provoked by the absence of synchrony. Our attempts to get out of the mess of life are more temporally complex than we tend to realise.