December 17, 2010
"Life is a life-changing experience." -Harry Shearer
There are a lot of books listing things you have to see, do, eat, drink, hear, or fail miserably at before you die. Usually the number is a thousand. Some suggest a thousand and one, although none of them, as far as I can tell, were written by Scheherezade. They list a thousand places you must see before you die, or a thousand paintings you must see before you die, or a thousand and one books you must read before you die. Where did this obsession with lists come from? I think it started when Simon and Garfunkel gave us fifty ways to leave your lover, and, once you’ve left, fifty-one ways to love your lever. Or maybe it was all those lists at the end of the 20th Century, ranking the greatest books of the century, the greatest sports matches of the century, and the greatest films of the century. The last one was much more extensive than the list of the greatest films of the 19th Century, but that reminds me: there’s also a book of a thousand and one films you must see before you die. I picked that one up and was surprised that Se7en, 8 and ½, and 2001 weren’t ranked even close to where I thought they’d be, but that’s a thousand and one other stories. I like reference books as much as the next guy, especially if the next guy is a librarian, but something about these books irks me. For one thing they’re just somebody’s opinion, and opinions are like armpits: most of us have a couple and nobody thinks theirs stink. For another can we really narrow down a list of must-have experiences to a number as small as a thousand? Oh, wait, I guess making it a thousand and one really makes it complete.
Back in 1893 Ward McAllister said there were only four hundred people in New York worth noticing. The writer O’Henry replied that there were four million people worth noticing, and that was just in the five boroughs. He felt that everyone was worth noticing, if only because, if you’re walking down the street, you’re liable to walk into anyone who isn’t one of the small number you’ve chosen to notice. With these books, though, it’s also the "before you die" in the moniker that bugs me. It sounds so blunt, so final, like a command. I’d really like to see Vietnam’s Halong Bay, but if I don’t I doubt I’m going to worry too much about it on my deathbed. There probably are people who treat these books like checklists, the way some birdwatchers are more worried about scratching the spotted towhee off their list than they are about the Bengal tiger coming up behind them. I’m sure there are people who rush from Reykjavik to Rapa Nui, with a quick stopover in the Gobi Desert. It’s been said that the journey is more important than the destination, but that’s really only true if you’re willing to accept the possibility that your real destination might not be the one you set out for in the first place. The only true way to make the journey more important than the destination is to forget the journey entirely and make sure you take time to enjoy the scenery. If all you’re focused on is ticking off a checklist of very specific goals before you die you’ll miss the experience of life.