On the grazing habits of the post-scarcity culture vulture

stacks of booksIn a world so full of entertainment choices that you could probably spend your entire life reading or listening or watching without ever having to repeat yourself, how do you choose what to enjoy next?

Favouring a single genre is one solution, of course, but even that’s a bit tricky nowadays, as pointed out by Jon Evans over at Tor.com. Just reading every science fiction novel published in a year would be quite a challenge if you wanted to hold down a job at the same time.

Evans thinks he’s identified two major coping strategies in our world of entertainment post-scarcity:

In my highly anecdotal experience, people tend to react to this overwhelming cornucopia in one of two ways: either they swear allegiance to one particular subfragment of genre, and deliberately steer clear of all else, or they try to sample a little bit of everything. I call this the buffet effect.

I used to be a specialist. Now I’m a sampler. Fifteen years ago, I felt like I had read most, if not all, of the good SF that had ever been published. Nowadays, I’m not sure that’s even possible; specialists have to focus on smaller subgenres, such as horror, or cyberpunk, or military SF.

As a sampler, I find myself reading one or two of an author’s books—and then moving on. I have read and really liked two Charles Stross novels, for instance, which once upon a time would have meant devouring everything he’s ever written. Instead I’ll have to overcome a certain reluctance to buy another book of his. I want to read them all, don’t get me wrong; but at the same time, I find myself subconsciously thinking of the “Charles Stross” box as already ticked, and wanting instead to try a brand-new dish from the endless buffet.

Interesting; I find myself kind of caught between the two states, personally, in that I go through brief periods of specialisation until I get distracted or derailed by some shiney new discovery, be it an author or style or subgenre; getting a commission to review a new title can provide an unexpected change of direction, too. [image by ginnerobot]

What about you – how do you decide what’s next in your to-be-read (or to-be-watched or listened-to) piles?

7 thoughts on “On the grazing habits of the post-scarcity culture vulture”

  1. I think I read basically three kinds of fiction:
    1) ‘serious’ literature;
    2) intelligent entertaining books (the shorter the better);
    3) downright junk (Barsoom novels and similarly ‘demanding’ literary products).
    I have been in love with the potential of sf for over 30 ys. Unfortunately, these days I often feel too disillusioned with the kind of sf that is actually written to bother opening one of the 100 or so unread sf books on my book shelves. (Sf books are not worse than they used to be – I have merely gotten older.)
    In my more frustrated moods, I throw much praised works like, say, Wilson’s “Spin” across the room because they just do not compare well with the best books by people like J.M. Coetzee, Alice Munro, Denis Johnson, Dietmar Dath etc.
    Then again, I still love the sense of wonder that sf sometimes provides, and every now and then I even manage to overlook the stylistic shortcomings of much of genre sf.
    Gosh, do I sound cranky.
    Well, back to your initial question. There are, of course, so many readable books about (and only so and so many years until we bite the dust)! Therefore, I try to ‘spezialize’ on the works of only perhaps a handful of sf writers working today so that I may – one fine day – find the time and the right mood to finally turn to all the other ‘realistic’ novels that belong to the ‘literary canon’ of our western civilization (Dostoevskiy, Mann and the like).
    So much for the theory. In practice, I do not know which book I will read next until perhaps five minutes before I pick it up. Every now and then I get myself review copies, then feel obliged to not throw the book into the waste-paper bin half way through – and usually have a lousy time ignoring the inner voice that tells me: “Why are you wasting your time with this Ross Macdonald novel when you are really supposed to be reading Bujold’s ‘Beguilement’?”
    One final remark regarding movies: I guess I really stopped caring about them when I turned 30, and now that I am past 40 I wonder how people can take superhero movies seriously that were produced for cinemagoers who are in their teens and twens.
    Golly, do I sound … 🙂

  2. I’ve got a big pile in the bedroom to choose from, and select depending upon mood. I try to pick up a lot of books from used book stores, yard sales, etc., so I have a lot of SF/fantasy, biography, history, technical, mystery, other fiction, and misc. books to choose from. Once I pick up a book, I’ll usually read it through. Definitely a sampler, but if I do hear of a good author from a friend, or find out that a ‘short listed’ author I like has produced a new book, I’ll often seek it out at the bookstore.

  3. I’ve sworn allegiance. But not to one specific subgenre. It’s more like a list or wordcloud from IMDB – the more boxes are ticked, the more likely I am to read something.

    Urban, games, post-cyberpunk, unreliable narrators, non-Western settings, alternate history, “flawed,” political, detectives, “challenging,” symbolism, non-linear, etc. etc.

  4. I try to keep a perfect balance between genre and mainstream, light and serious, fiction and nonfiction. Alfred Bester’s Pi Man is my role model, all right.

    Norman Mailer said that when you read only an author’s best work, you deprive yourself of the pleasure of enjoying him at his worst. That’s the downside of grazing.

    Nevertheless, I’m doing more grazing, life being the finite thing it is.

    Oh, and whatever else I’m doing, I almost always think about all the other things I could be doing.

    Now, as for music…

  5. Life being the finite thing it is, I’m actually finding myself grazing less and focusing more on those authors whose work I believe I will have a higher propensity to enjoy.

    Not that I’m averse to sampling a wider variety of work, but more and more I’m finding that the opportunity cost of investing the requisite reading time in something that eventually turns out to offer a very low satisfaction-return is just too high.

    So I’m most likely sticking to my faves, for the foreseeable future and keeping my ears open for *particularly* strong recommendations for new material from highly-trusted sources as I go…

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