Rahul’s Question: Where are all the bad books?
This past weekend I drove down to Tennessee to visit some friends (and go to Dollywood!). It was awesome for many reasons, but the main one is that whenever I drive more than 250 miles at a stretch, I have epiphanies.
I’m not really sure why this only happens when I drive, but not when I fly, or take the bus. I think it might have something to do with not being allowed to distract myself from my own thoughts; from being forced to be alone with them for hours on end. But, usually, when that happens I start thinking very fast, and begin going over and over in thought-spirals.
When I drive, that does not happen. My thought proceeds very slowly, in fits and nibbles. Sometimes an hour passes without a single thought that I can remember. But then, slowly, something starts to form, and I am left alone with it, and can build upon it, and even though it begins to degrade the moment I leave the car, something remains behind that I can carry with me forever (or at least for awhile).
During this trip, I somehow found myself thinking about Sturgeon’s Law. For those of you who aren’t in the SF world, Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer (a fairly good one). His law is: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” From Wikipedia:
The first written reference to this appears in the March 1958 issue of Venture, where Sturgeon wrote: “I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud”. Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. are crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms do.
This is often used as a sort of truism in SF. I don’t know why I was thinking about it. Maybe it was because of Larry’s series of posts at the OF Blog of the Fallen on reading and being a good reader. In one of them, he said something like, “I wish people wouldn’t just quote Sturgeon’s Law. That frees them from having to think about why they don’t like the books they don’t like.”
And I was thinking and thinking, and it came to me: “Where are all these crap books? I haven’t read them. Ninety percent of the books I read are pretty good.”
I’ve always just assumed that, even though most of the books I read are good, that I am nonetheless occupying a tiny plateau of goodness surrounded by crap: that there are vast, titanic mountains of crap out to get me. But…where is the crap? I can always sort of sense it in the distance, but, somehow, it never gets to me…
I exercise only minimal discernment in choosing the books I read. I hear about it online, and then I check it out from the library. I glance through it at a bookstore, and if I like the first few pages, then I buy it. It’s not like I’m erecting some sort of super crap-proof forcefield around my bookshelves. So why do the books I read, on average, tend to be so good?
And I was thinking, and thinking, and…ninety percent of everything I use tends to be pretty good. When I flip through the radio, I can usually find a song I like. When I’m surfing channels, I can usually find something that I enjoy watching. When I go to the theater and see a movie, I usually like it. When I buy an electronic device, I’m generally satisfied by how it works.
And then, another hundred miles later, I extended it to the rest of my life. When I visit a restaurant, the service is usually pretty good. When I order take-out, I generally enjoy the food. When I get to know someone, I usually find that they’re fairly interesting.
And it’s not like I am some sort of connoisseur of the finer things. I eat at Burger King. I shop at Best Buy. I watch HBO at 4 AM, and watch USA’s silly low-rent TV shows. My water comes out of the same tap as anyone else’s, and my Coca-Cola comes from the same bottling plant. If ninety percent of everything was crap, wouldn’t it, like…find me?
I think the key here is the term, “with minimal amounts of discernment.” If I was just buying books by the boatload from the remaindering factory, then, yeah, maybe ninety percent of them would not be to my taste. If I just bashed my remote against a rock and watched whatever channel came up, then I would probably dislike it. But it doesn’t take much time or effort to not do that. It only takes one trip to a bad restaurant to be like, “Huh, not going to come here again.”
I actually cannot say whether ninety percent of everything is crap. I am not sufficiently willing to sample things at random in order to figure that out. What I am willing to say is that the statement “ninety percent of everything is crap” has, even if it is true, almost no practical implications.
It’s like saying, “The surface of the earth is mostly water.”
I mean, yeah, that’s true…but that’s no reason to worry about whether or not you’ll be able to find some land to stand on.
Even if ninety percent of everything is crap, the effort required to avoid it is so extremely minimal and almost totally unconscious that the world might as well be mostly composed of good stuff. And what if the world is composed mostly of good stuff? Wow, that would be really scary. It’s a good thing that my drive ended before I could contemplate that one.