this reading around it

“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.


what she is really like

“We live in a uniform civilization, within well-defined cultural models: furnishings, decorative elements, blankets, record player have been chosen among a certain number of given possibilities.  What can they reveal to you about what she is really like?”  — Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

It’s hard to figure out how to understand what a person is like, sometimes.

As Calvino considers here, there’s only so much you can glean from a look around my apartment.  Many of my possessions are not things that I have any kind of profound connection with.  They’re more like things I searched haphazardly for on Amazon (“throw blanket;” “hand soap dispenser”), eventually becoming dismayed by what felt an insufficient array of choices.  I can hardly be expected to find a lamp that resonates with my soul if I’m only given thirty-seven options.  Instead I’m left with a sort of lukewarm resignation with the various detritus of my living space.

It gets perhaps a bit more interesting when one considers possessions less universal.  It is true, I suppose, that one can begin to develop some kind of idea of “what I am like” upon observing that I have a record player.  But even this is hard to distinguish from Calvino’s “well-defined cultural models:” do I have a record player because there is something about me that entails having a record player, or do I have a record player because I am trying to be the kind of person who has made the effort to have a record player?  The record collection itself is, one might reasonably argue, a cornucopia of artifacts collected for the purpose of actualizing into a carefully considered and curated version of one of these cultural models.

Every representation we employ for the sake of trying to project something outward, something to the world, about Who We Truly Are, is contrived by its very nature.  And as a result, it is actually surprisingly difficult to communicate anything authentic, I am starting to think.  At best, one can show others some disproportioned caricature of self.  But when I describe myself on Tinder with the sentence “Likes reading, playing guitar, drinking coffee, listening to indie music and talking about philosophy/sociology,” it is hard to imagine that a stranger is actually able to understand anything about my quiddity, my Andrew-ness.  All I’m doing is describing which of the latest models I most closely resemble.

I dwell sometimes on the idea that in ways very real, I was not able to come to know this or that former relationship partner.  I can’t decide whether or not this helps.

On the one hand, if you can spend two years of your life sharing experiences with another person and, at the end of it, still feel in some unbridgeable distant way as if you don’t really know them — then what in the hell is the point?

On the other hand, maybe that is just how it goes.  Maybe as we go through life locked into only the one consciousness, bouncing zanily off of other identities, the best we can hope for is to get some tenuous sense of what another person is like, through all the unhelpful miasma of what they are presenting as that is not really them the person.  And maybe there’s some weird inexplicable charm in that.

Or maybe I’m just mad and lazy because I’m single and it’s hard to start to get to know someone even when you have things in common and similar taste in books and music and et cetera.  You know.  Whichever.