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.
(MORE: On Rereading Favorite Books)
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.
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