“You turn the book over in your hands, you scan the sentences on the back of the jacket, generic phrases that don’t say a great deal.  So much the better, there is no message that indiscreetly outshouts the message that the book itself must communicate directly, that you must extract from the book, however much or little it may be.  Of course, this circling of the book, too, this reading around it before reading inside it, is a part of the pleasure in a new book, but like all preliminary pleasures, it has its optimal duration if you want it to serve as a thrust toward the more substantial pleasure of the consummation of the act, namely the reading of the book.”  — Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

I’m sort of obsessed with metadata.

The first time I ever heard of metadata, I think, was when I was developing a collection of MP3s when I was like thirteen.  MP3s have this thing called an ID3 tag which is the thing that holds the information about the song; its name, artist, album name, year of release, genre, etc.  Data about the data.  There seems to be a fairly clean delineation between experiencing a song and getting out into the weeds thinking about what album it’s from and all that.  Those are distinct.

But as time has gone on, metadata has become more and more compelling and interesting for me, and significantly, inextricable from the thing itself that is being described.  I guess you could call it “secondary information.”  Sometimes, in my experience, it’s not very important, even where it grants context.  Let me explain.  I could, perhaps, go listen to a Peter Gabriel song.  “Hmm,” I might say.  “I wonder how long after his stuff with Genesis this was released.  I wonder why he and Genesis split up.  Did that have anything to do with the thrust of his solo career?  How old was he when they split and then when this came out?  How long did he keep making music, I mean, was this still early in his career or towards the end?”

I could, perhaps, also just enjoy the song.

But so, sometimes, the context is necessary to enjoy — to even understand — the thing itself.  I went to an art museum with a friend this week and, us knowing not very much about art, we were grateful for an opportunity to join a guided tour that explored a bunch of different pieces.  In many cases, after giving the tour group an opportunity to absorb and sink into a piece, our guide would provide some contextual information about said piece, perhaps the artist’s background, or some kind of idea they were seeking to adapt and subvert in an interesting way, and — *pop* — the piece suddenly resolved into a sort of focus, a lot like the way a seeing eye picture does, except it’s a focus of understanding rather than that of vision.

It’s weird how sometimes this stuff — this call it secondary info or contextual underpinning or metadata — this stuff is, sincerely, necessary for us to feel like we have a proper understanding of a thing.  And what I find myself recognizing over time is that this process is not exclusive to media.  Increasingly I discover this phenomenon happening elsewhere in my life.  Now.  Granted.  I overanalyze everything, and (don’t worry) I am hyper-self-conscious about this same overanalysis itself.  Having said that, isn’t this universal?  It seems like this is a thing that we all do.  We grapple with something, an idea, an experience, that is Not Sensible.  A puzzle missing too many pieces to see as a coherent image.  And we scrabble around the periphery, looking for more puzzle pieces, trying to find where to plug them in and gain some clearer grasp of what this thing is that we are looking at, that we are dealing with.  Because it’s frustrating to not be able to understand what it is.

And sometimes, the data isn’t there.  Sometimes life is just, here’s a thing you don’t understand.  Try all you like, you will not crack the code, it’s just the thing it is.  An incoherent, can’t-put-your-finger-on-it, what-do-those-small-things-TRULY-signify, mysterious thing.  And — well — alright, okay I guess.


2 thoughts on “this reading around it

  1. I still miss the zen pleasure of editing metadata on stolen MP3s, back in the days when we managed all our media manually.

    I think we have a tendency as humans to even invent backstory for things. I know I see people do it at the museum nearly daily, “imagine what has been around since the Revolution…” We’re pattern-seekers, and we will insert our own if we can’t find one. What I could really use some well-catalogued metadata on now however, is politics. I’m afraid that the other side has become of the mysterious things to me, and that can’t be right.


  2. Hmm, apparently editing comments isn’t a thing: that should read “imagine what [insert favorite artifact] has been around for since the Revolution.” Guess I’ll go turn on comment editing on my wordpress sites now. TIL…


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