A famous British travel writer died recently, aged 96. I say “famous” because he merited an commemorative appreciation in the New York Review of Books, but in spite of his evidently well-known works and fascinating life story, I’d never heard of him.
Nor, for that matter, had I ever heard of any of the other apparently well-known travel writers the article set him among or compared him to. Reading about this man, I felt I’d been deposited in an alternate universe peopled by an entirely different set of personalities than those I’d known existed.
Admittedly, I am not a heavy reader of travel literature, but I’m generally well-read and keep up with the news of the world and popular culture. I read a lot of books and I read about a lot more books than that. Yet somehow I’d missed the existence, not just of a writer of note, but of a whole milieu of writing.
It just goes to show you: not only will we never read even a minuscule fraction of the books we might like to read, but entire cultural movements and developments will pass us by. Last week The Onion compiled a list of favorite albums, called “Best Music of 2011.” Of the 25 artists, I never heard of 16. (And I write about music! Less, though, lately – in part because of this phenomenon.)
Meanwhile Alec Baldwin, who’s older than I am, got booted off a plane because he’s addicted to a smartphone game I never heard of.
Ah, video games…there’s a whole universe of carefully realized worlds in video games, none of which I know the first thing about. In one sense, video games are a special case for me: early experience with them taught me that operating the controllers injured my fingers, which interfered with being able to play musical instruments, so that whole genre of entertainment went out the window. Still, I expect that if I wanted to I could find ways around that problem and plunge in. Yet I don’t see it happening.
It’s no wonder I often find myself retreating to murder mysteries and Mozart.
The upshot: I’ll just have to settle for partial participation, and incomplete knowledge of the world. As we all will. As long as we’re alive, though, there’s always the possibility something will catch our notice and draw us into something new. Could it be time to catch up on those mid-20th century British travel writers? Maybe even get on a plane and visit some of their former haunts? Who knows, maybe I’ll get bumped up to first class and sit next to Alec Baldwin.