We often aspire to become more cultured, and buying more sophisticated items seems like a surefire way of cultivating those tastes we so desire. Grabbing a New Yorker off the newsstand instead of Glamour, downloading that new indie track everyone’s talking about but you haven’t actually heard, putting The Sound and the Fury atop your summer reading list with the intention of finally ditching your trashy beach novels… It’s aspirational shopping, buying according to the tastes you’d like to have instead of the ones you actually do. My favorite aspirational item? The Netflix DVD.
I’ll admit I am guilty of it, and I suspect many of you are as well: how many times have you added some art house film or that Oscar-nominated foreign flick to the Netflix queue only to have it sit unwatched for weeks? I tell myself I want to see Into the Wild and Citizen Kane… but when I finally plop onto the couch to pop in the DVD, in my weakened state my mood inevitably favors the more refined works of Sirs Rudd and Rogan.
We are all guilty of shopping and constructing our realities based on who we’d like to be rather than who we actually are. Of course, aspirational shopping is not necessarily bad, for with it you may discover “highbrow” tastes you never knew you possessed. (I recently had to visit the Ancient Egypt exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum for a class… instead of sleeping in that morning, I found myself roaming the pristine white halls and truly enjoying a bit of higher culture.) But sometimes, as the library copy of War and Peace gathers dust on the nightstand, we should ask ourselves: who are we kidding? Approach “highbrow” culture while being true to yourself, and you’ll have a shot at uncovering cerebral and enjoyable material you will want to embrace.
A few personal recommendations for genuinely pleasurable and accessible pieces of “high culture:”
• Vanity Fair magazine— not a fashion magazine but actually an engaging publication full of relevant political news, cultural features, and literary works by top American writers (my favorite: Fran Lebowitz). When it comes to content and style, VF has more in common with The New Yorker than Vogue.
• The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007)— French subtitles can be obnoxious, but Julian Schnabel’s Golden Globe-winning film transcends language barriers to stimulate your heart and your mind, making you reevaluate the capacity of the human imagination and what is really necessary to live a full life.
• Mad Men— a smart, witty 1950s period drama on AMC that provides enough entertainment and intrigue to keep you from switching the channel back to those ever-compelling Family Guy reruns.
• The Great Gatsby— revisit the high school classic, and you’ll find F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters compelling, the action entertaining and the social commentary on money and the “American Dream” as topical as ever.
• NPR— ’nuff said.
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