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Sampling: The Pleasures and Disappointments of Life in Small Doses

A little bit of this and that sounds like fun, but it's ultimately unfulfilling

By Akiko Busch

A few weeks ago, on a train home after a day in Manhattan with nothing to read, I took out my Kindle to browse some titles I might be interested in. I glanced at a few and downloaded a sample. Then another, and another: The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. And what’s all the fuss about Fifty Shades of Grey? Better take a look.
By the time I reached my stop, an hour and a half later, I realized I had spent the entire ride reading a couple of sections here, a few chapters there. Ten pages of one title, 20 pages of another. I had consumed a fair number of words. But as with the outcome of any other snackfest, I felt full without being especially satisfied. And it was, I understood, a good lesson in the exercise of sampling.

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I came to the pleasures of sampling in my 20s, when I was trying to live on the restrictive salary of a young magazine editor. Back then, it was a way of life: The tiny cubes of cheese and plastic cups of white wine at openings were dinner; the leisurely stroll through Bloomingdale’s ground floor yielded enough tiny packets and tubes of free make-up to bring a spot of shimmer to those days of limited means.
Around that time, experiencing life in bits and pieces acquired cultural cachet, and sampling became a legitimate form of social and artistic expression. In music, it wasn’t just about melodic scraps — it was about the way these could be reassembled. When musicians and DJs remixed bits of sound from different artists to compose a different whole, they challenged traditional notions of ownership and use. The result was inventive, provocative, unpredictable, new.
But as so often happens with pioneering ideas in art, the exercise caught on in a broader arena. The idea that life can exist in sections and slivers to be cut up, collaged and reconstructed like a mix tape at times seemed like the gorgeous conceit of our times.
The new approach to consumption was fun, and liberating, and seemed to offer ways to cram in even more experience. Why not go for several two-ounce tasting bottles instead of committing to one bottle? Likewise, tasting menus in restaurants helped us to believe that like music, food, along with assorted other realms of human experience, could be sipped, tested and otherwise tried out in manageable, experimental and entirely noncommittal portions.
There didn't appear to be anything fundamentally wrong with trying a little bit of this and some of that. As a way of auditioning experience, it was fine — and a viable defense against rigidity and close-mindedness. In my 20s, it was a lark, a way of foraging for the goods and trying out the unknown in bite-sized pieces that were cheap, varied and available.
Somewhere along the line, though — maybe as just another symptom of our attention-deficient culture — the belief that everything can be wholly experienced in little fragments acquired a greater legitimacy than it deserves.
Thankfully, most of us would agree that sampling is not relevant to our most important human endeavors, be it finding absorbing work, maintaining enduring relationships or raising kids. All of these are a matter of seeing things through, and the satisfaction offered by such enterprises has precisely to do with their fullness, their continuity, their evolution over time.

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That said, it is easy to imagine that we can — and even should — do a little bit of everything else. And it becomes just as easy to plan too much, volunteer for too many things, agree to an excess of engagements. Inherent in the mix-tape approach to life is the perception that a fragment of something — whether a 10-minute yoga program instead of the full hour or a facebook message in place of a letter — can be enough. It' has become almost second nature to consider these as time-saving shortcuts, but it also leads us to fall into the habit of using such shortcuts as surrogates for the real thing.
When I mentioned this to a friend, she understood immediately. “It’s the difference between Abbey Road and iTunes,” she said. “We all lose when we don’t have the full, rich, deeply nuanced and carefully planned whole.” Why listen to an entire album — that may have been composed with a deliberate sense of theme and seamless musical progression —when you can download a single for $1.29? Because things are informed by what comes before them and after them; remove their context, and you risk losing a part of their meaning.  
All of which is why, some 30 years after my “grazing young editor” days, finding myself exercising the sample option of my Kindle and taking it to its extreme application, I discover the thrill has gone. Snacking at the little book buffet on the train was lacking in substance. The sense of sufficiency, in this case literary sufficiency, was absent.
Confuse the narrative sample as a surrogate for the whole and the value of the latter is sacrificed. Sure, you might get the voice, the attitude, the gist, the premise and some dim idea of where it is all going to go. But the depth, detail, dimension, the sense of an idea being formed, the reasoning that leads to something conclusive, the cumulative process that adds up to a total: All of these are sacrificed. Not to mention the beauty of the writing: A paragraph or a page can't hope to capture the artistry of a well-crafted book.
Yet sampling seems to have trickled down into every corner of life. When I got home that evening after my train ride and reached for the box of tea, I saw it was a Rest and Relax Sampler, “a collection of soothing and calming teas.” My options were Kava Stress Relief, Bedtime, Comforting Chamomile and Calming Lemongrass, a variety clearly offered as a promising alternative to committing to an entire box of one brew. 
I settled in with a full cup of Calming Lemongrass and clicked on Rogan’s The Lifeboat, a dazzling story about survival, endurance and persistence and how these are abiding forces in our lives. Without hesitating, I downloaded it in its entirety.

Akiko Busch writes about design, culture and the natural world for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, was published by Yale University Press in April 2013. Read More
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