While you’re reading this, two buzzy new TV shows will premiere, the best-reviewed movie of the fall will arrive in theaters, and book critics will make mandatory reading out of some intimidatingly long novel you’d planned to skip. Which might be okay if you didn’t already have a month’s worth of unwatched television on your DVR, a Netflix queue full of last year’s Oscar bait, and a nightstand buried under half-finished hardcovers (plus helpful encouragement from your social-media friends, all of them live-tweeting every plot twist).
In other words, you, dutiful cultural consumer, are behind, with zero chance of ever catching up.
Despite the reportedly imminent implosions of the film, publishing, and television industries, the menu of worthy-seeming entertainment options is longer than ever, and keeping up has never required so much homework. Blame TV, which over the past decade has become art with serialized shows that demand, in the best cases, 60-hour commitments to watching all episodes in order, like God and David Chase intended. But also blame digital distribution and the rise of subscription streaming, which have made almost every new release instantly, obnoxiously accessible and therefore part of your daily recommended cultural intake. Netflix is particularly culpable, releasing full, thirteen-hour seasons of shows like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black in lump sums, essentially sentencing you to house arrest until you’ve finished binge-watching them.
So why not just give up? With all the hassle new culture causes, you’d probably be happier without it. In fact, if the doomsaying about our culture industries were to actually come to pass some day, and the production of new movies, books, TV shows, and songs to immediately cease, we might all be better off.
Because the other pernicious thing about having to keep up with all this new stuff is that it distracts us from enjoying the stuff that came before it. While you were mainlining Orange Is the New Black, you might not have noticed that we suddenly have easy, on-demand access to the greatest library of old culture ever built—much of that thanks to some of the same services that have made new culture such an unwieldy proposition. Between Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and iTunes, there aren’t many movies or TV shows of the past century that you couldn’t watch on your laptop right now (and if you can’t get it from one of the above, it’s probably still out there somewhere). In addition to over a million e-books for sale on Amazon and iBooks, you can download nearly 2 million classic, out-of-print, or pre-1923 ones from sites like Google and Project Gutenberg for free, directly to your tablet. Spotify, the music-streaming service, has over 20 million songs in its library, which reaches as far back as Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s 1860 phonautograph recording of “Au Clair de la Lune.”
Not long ago, your home-entertainment choices were limited to whatever was on live TV and the shelves at your local stores. Now, you’re never more than a few mouse clicks away from the entire contents of our cultural history. Despite the infinite selection, though, dipping into old culture should feel less daunting than trying to drink new culture straight from the tap. Time has already sorted most of the good from the bad for you. The official canons of great film, TV, literature, and music are well established, and if you still haven’t seen, for example, the top ten titles on the most recent Sight & Sound critics’ poll of the best movies ever (Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, La Règle du Jeu, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Searchers, Man With a Movie Camera, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and 8 1/2, all rentable on iTunes if not streamable on Netflix or Hulu Plus), you’d be crazy to go to the multiplex this weekend, no matter what’s playing (it’s Thor 2).
But you seem like the discriminating type, so let’s assume that you have seen those films—and read everything on the World Library’s list of the 100 best books; and heard Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time; and watched The Sopranos and all the exalted TV dramas that descended from it—and now you’re in the market for something a little less fustily canonical. The cloud is full of unsung masterpieces, many of them neglected by people who were too distracted by the other new culture of their time. Finding ones to match your personal tastes is becoming easier with assistance from the surprisingly intelligent recommendation engines baked into services like Netflix and Spotify. Their suggestions can still be a little wonky, though (“Since you listened to Lou Reed, you might like this new release by Pat Boone”), so we decided to consult our own human-powered recommendation system: New York’s critics.
In lieu of our usual present-centric Culture Pages in this week’s New York Magazine, David Edelstein, Bilge Ebiri, Jody Rosen, Kathryn Schulz, and Matt Zoller Seitz tell us what’s in their own personal canons of old culture, much of it easily accessible using the services above (you’ll need to do a little digital crate-digging for some). If, at the end of it all, these 154 pieces of unearthed evidence still haven’t convinced you to quit new culture forever, click here for reviews of this week’s releases.
*This article originally appeared in the November 18, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.