A while back I heard a beautiful overture by the British Composer Edward Elgar, played on the classical music station of Minnesota Public Radio. At the conclusion of the piece, the announcer mentioned that the work had its premiere at “an English country fair” in 1890. That simple announcement got me to pondering: For the great majority of those who heard Elgar’s overture that day at the fair, this was the one and only opportunity they would have to do so. It’s not impossible that a very few were able to hear it again, perhaps in a London concert a few months or years later, but only a very few, if any. And none would have had access to the precursor of the radio I was listening to; the first tenuous radio broadcast was fifteen years in the future. If a music lover at that English country fair that day found the piece to be yearningly beautiful, that’s all she was left with: yearning.
I heard the Elgar piece because I can listen to classical music any hour of the day or night. If I find a piece to be yearningly beautiful, I click on iTunes or Amazon and order it as a CD or MP3, so it is then available whenever I desire. I wouldn’t trade places with the country fair-goer, but it is not unreasonable to wonder which of us had the deeper aesthetic experience. As Orson Welles said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”
|The Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral|
|A corner of what I like to call "My Library."|
I am of the generation that, in childhood, had to get out of the chair and walk across the room to change the TV dial to one of three channels, depending on whether we wanted to watch Maverick or Sky King or Disneyland or Captain 11. I am not nostalgic about this. (Well, maybe a little.) I mention it because we recently “cut the cable” for the opposite reason: We were paying for 800 channels and watching only three (okay, seven) of them. Now, with Roku and Spectrum and Netflix and Amazon and Broadway HD, we are unchained from the 800, and free to choose among the really good programs on the streaming channels. Really, really good. Our new complaint/mantra is “Too much good TV!” If we add the PBS programming that Caryl and I have watched every Sunday night (and now Friday and Saturday) for forty-eight years--and the programs of other networks included in these packages--to the offerings on our new streaming services, here is a partial, random, list of really, really good TV that we are watching now, or can get to on TiVo, or find with the juggling of two remotes: Masterpiece (currently, Victoria), Sherlock, Father Brown, The Amazing Mrs. Meisel, Stranger Things, The Queen, Call the Midwife(!), Crashing, This Old House, 800 Words, Vera, Last Tango In Halifax(!), Monarch of the Glen, Nashville, Grantchester, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Hollow Crown(!), Colbert, Conan, Highway Through Hell (my one guilty secret reality show!), Nature, Nova, Frontline, American Experience, the new Broadway musical adaptations of Wind in the Willows and From Here to Eternity, many HBO offerings, and more. (Let the judging of our TV tastes begin—certainly l’ve left off your favorite program.)
|TV test pattern used for sign-off at midnight.|
Good luck trying to binge-watch Stranger Things!
Speaking of HBO, Caryl and I nodded in agreement when we first heard, “HBO is the new Hollywood.” (HBO’s “Deadwood,” described by my demure wife as “Shakespeare with the F word,” is still the best thing ever shown on TV.) HBO was followed by Netflix Productions and Amazon Originals and Hulu… Now they’re all New Hollywood, and, mostly, excellent. Not to mention the regular “old Hollywood “ flicks that are included in their offerings. The memory of standing in a line that ran around the corner—to see Spartacus at the Elks Theater in Rapid City in 1962—fades as I pick up the remote to watch it again on Netflix.
A predictable conclusion to these musings would be to look back in the spirit of what we English majors call ubi sunt (“Where are they now—the old simplicities of yesterday?...”), to plead for the return of the three-channel Crosley Television Set in the living room, to look back in longing at that English country fair—to be sitting under a tree with a picnic basket, a Victorian orchestra serenading the scene. But that is not the conclusion I draw from these observations of history and progress. It is rather to raise again the question that accompanies all progress: “What have we gained, and what have we lost?” I make no attempt at a complete answer to this question, but the question itself helps us to temper our excitement with the new by setting it in the context of another question: “What makes for a good life?” It might sound wishy-washy to say that the good life must be found somewhere along a spectrum which includes a solitary country symphony concert on the one end and an iPhone with a thousand MP3s on the other. This is undoubtedly too mathematical a scale to judge matters of art and the heart, but it invites us to consider and apply an idea that has accompanied and tempered all progress: The Golden Mean. The answer to the good life question is neither “the olden days,” nor “anything new!” but a learning-from-the-old, and an adaptation of the new to a standard set by common sense, a balanced personal life, and supportive relationships. I don’t need to give up my iPhone and all its apps, but I also need to remember, as Sherry Turkle reports, that an iPhone at the dinner table—even turned off and upside-down—is an intrusion into the flow (and feel) of conversation and the connections of the lives around that table. The Golden Mean.
So now that we have nothing but quality TV and a home collection of classical music, perhaps we are not (in the words of Neil Postman’s cogent title) “amusing ourselves to death.” (“Hey, I’m watching Shakespeare here! I’m listening to that Elgar overture again!”), but could it be that we are enlightening ourselves to death? The quantity of high-quality television shows—of which my list, above, is a small percentage—reminds me of that truism about visiting the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.: If a visitor spends a minute at each display, he will not make it through the museum in his lifetime.
This essay was sparked by that TV program list, which I started for a personal project of cutting down on some of this excellent TV-watching—limiting it for the sake of a balanced life and recovered time. If I cut some of it out, I’ll have a better answer to Caryl’s question, as she steps into my little library: “Are you ever going to read all of these books?”