Friday, October 3, 2008

99, 992 Recordings To Hear Before You Die...

...because, as Hamlet said, “The rest is silence.” Such is my reaction when I confront a title such as 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, a new book consisting of a long, annotated list of songs by music critic Tom Moon. Why not 99, 992? Is 99, 992 an “unrealistic” number? Too arbitrary? Why? Does a list of the daunting length 99, 992 demand too much of our time, require too much of a commitment, we who have just “one life to live”? Or, in contrast, does 1,000 represent a more obtainable, if more modest goal, than 99, 992—which is to say, you shouldn’t aim high, but aim low? But if you aim low, what’s the value of the list at all if you have just one life to live? What, precisely, does any sort of list offer to you in the short time you have?

More likely, the power of the number 1,000 resides in its promise that a certain, magical threshold has been reached. The number 1,000, like the number 100, seems to ring with the profundity of an absolute limit. Is it because 1,000 is a round number with multiple zeroes that it acts as a lure, offering one the promise of a liminal moment, a threshold point, a critical juncture in a cultural rite de passage that represents a conceptual breakthrough, an acute intellectual insight--nirvana? The promise of having reached a thousand recordings is rather like that moment when one's automobile odometer is about to turn over while reading 99, 999 miles--the illusion of a highly significant, monumental event in one's life.

The problem is, of course, that knowledge is not quantifiable: and in the case of music, the more you hear does not mean the more you know, except insofar as you have access to a greater list of proper names. Alas, the number “1,000” is just a banal convention within the publishing industry, and a book comprised of a numbered list is yet another effect of consumer culture, in which truths are no longer axioms but merely the expression of individual tastes presented in the form of nonfalsifiable, aesthetic judgments. As Jack Goody has pointed out (in The Muse Learns to Write), certain characteristic features of written or typographic culture, such as the list, encourage a form of thinking impossible for a purely oral culture. The problem, as Robert Ray has observed, is all but “the most conscientiously produced” lists are “organized around not concepts, but proper names” (130). From a publisher's perspective, lists are always provocative (they are a sort of "built-in" promotional device), provocation being one of the defining characteristics of a consumer culture in which taste has become one of the primary forms of political expression.

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