Nick Hornby’s column ‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading‘ in the McSweeney’s writing mag The Believer is always the thing I turn to first, and this month’s (well, March/April – but it has to be rowed across the Atlantic in a bath tub, it seems) is one of the best for ages.
He is ostensibly writing about a book called The Train in the Night by music journalist Nick Coleman, which documents his terrible journey through sudden loss of hearing in one ear – a disaster for a man whose life was so engrossed in sound. I’ll leave you to consider the piece at your leisure, but the section that jumped out at me in Hornby’s article concerned the future of taste in a world of universal, free access:
‘Taste is a complicated edifice that has been under construction since the early 1970’s, and it’s now in danger of collapsing – not just because Nick (Coleman’s) relationship with his stuff has had to change, but because, in the new digital world, just about every form of engagement with art is up for reevaluation.
‘What will it mean, when we have access to every worthwhile piece of music ever made, and none of us own any of it, and none of us have had to save up for it, to choose between one album and another, to leave our homes to obtain it, even? Does that make us all the same? And what happens when your libraries disappear into one Apple’s clouds, young people? How will you decide who to have sex with then, eh?’
It’s an interesting thought… Though we may have unlimited space for virtual music and books, we do have limited time to listen and read. And thus we have to engage in some process of rejection and selection. The difference between the world as Hornby sees it now, and the world of record stores and physical purchases, is that your selections now cost you almost nothing, whereas in the past, having a limited budget meant that you really had to consider very carefully which album you were going to add to your collection that week.
With the removal of that financial constraint, the question is whether our tastes have benefited or not. In one sense, now that we have access to everything, we might be able to construct a far more interesting collection of things we listen to (or read) because we have such a wide palette.
But I’m not convinced. It’s a cliche that the super-rich have no taste. Vulgar, ostentatious things apparently fill their vast houses… and perhaps Hornby is suggesting why: because they have no budget, they have no discrimination either. So perhaps universal access to music serves to denigrate taste, rather than enhance it? We don’t have to practice so much discernment, so…we don’t.
Yet regardless of financial situation, taste is still about careful selection. With such a wide variety of things, perhaps it becomes too easy to go for the familiar and the obvious.
Either way, I wonder if those we regard as having very good taste are those who use a far narrower palette, focusing on a smaller number of things, and doing them very well, often picking things out from places outside of the obvious.