I wanted to talk about Two and a Half Men. The early seasons of that show have circled back to me, specifically through my housemate’s readily available Amazon Prime subscription, and my refusal to do any revision work outside working hours if I can help it. I’m not in the mood to start anything new, so my first ever favourite TV show will do. I learned English from watching Two and a Half Men. I learned everything I know about relationships (explains a lot, I think) from it. The early seasons are so wholesome–I’m up to season 3.
I have two all-time favourite episodes, and one is 3×12 That Special Tug. I couldn’t remember the plot straight off the bat, but I could remember what the next scene was throughout. No surprises there, I guess. Kind of comforting. If you’re not familiar either: it’s the episode where we meet Jane Lynch as Charlie’s psychiatrist. It’s set in flashbacks from an eventful weekend: Charlie and Alan go to the cinema, Alan has a few breakdowns; they go check on a 13-year-old Jake at his sleepover, and Alan has another breakdown as his child ‘hates him’ (lil dramatic), and. . .so the story goes.
It’s a really funny episode. Still is. Throughout the episode, Lynch is confused as to why Charlie came to see her, as he doesn’t want to discuss any of the issues (mommy, daddy, women, drinking, gambling) she picks up on. The end twist is Charlie saying he’s there as a precaution: if he ever kills Alan, he’ll already have been to therapy and gets a more lenient sentence. (Morbid? Not really; just watch the thing. It’s a sitcom.)
What really struck me, on one rewatch out of many–but my first at university, potentially my first as an adult at all–is Alan’s despair. I never thought about him in the episode; Lynch and Charlie steal the show. But he is so deeply relatable. It got me thinking.
So, Alan breaks down at a bookstore:
You know, for years I have been wishing that I had time to read all the great books. You know, Dostoyevsky, and Hemingway, Faulkner, and Dickens and Shakespeare! And history, history. U.S. history, world history, the history of language! I mean, why doesn't anyone speak Sumerian anymore? I don't know, because I haven't read the book.
I’ve read Notes from Underground and The Old Man and the Sea, but do I really want to live a life where I’ve breezed through the shortest books by those authors, just so I can say I’ve read them? Was reading Hamlet for lit class in year 11 enough?
I study history, and by next year I will hopefully be in grad school studying history. But what do I know about the history of cheese? I’m not a middle-aged, divorced father of a child, but is there any reason to expect I’ll go a different way?
ALAN: And, oh, poetry, poetry! Byron and Keats and Shelley. And biographies! Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln and, oh, Groucho Marx. I mean I mean, look at them all. Look at them, they're mocking me. I haven't read any of them! CHARLIE: Okay, well, just pick one for now. ALAN: Why bother? There's not enough time. There's too many books, and there's not enough time! CHARLIE: Maybe you just need a system. Put a book next to the toilet. Every couple of days, knock out a couple chapters. ALAN: No, no, it's too late for me. There's not enough bowel movements left. CHARLIE: Maybe you need to change your diet. ALAN: No, it's hopeless. Jake will be grown up soon and I'll be dead. And you know what I'll have left behind? A life of unfulfilled dreams, a shelf of unread books and three unopened seasons of Six Feet Under on DVD.
I think the writers absolutely nailed it here. Yeah, okay, I could start reading now. (I wrote a list and put it on my noticeboard a few months ago, ready to cross off books or authors I wanted to read.) But when I let myself spiral, even a little bit, I think Alan’s right. There’s not enough time, and the books are mocking us.
What’s the takeaway then? Well, for a lot of viewers, and probably the writers, this is a throwaway joke. But Alan shows more self-awareness than ever, and he is a neurotic over-thinker on his best day. Even for college-educated people, knowledge is inaccessible. I’ve thought of blaming my school or university for not teaching me more about Freud or Foucault, but I did also kick up a fuss when introduced to a third module in three years that explored the philosophy of dead white men. And I did choose to study in the UK, where your degree is specialised. And I chose not to take a joint honours, or an elective module. So many active choices; yet I feel cheated.
I feel like I need to know. I can’t figure out what Classical Memes talk about. Plato, Aristotle, Caesar–are they going to remain figures I barely remember studying in middle school? What if the hype is real; what am I missing out on? And so it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be enough to try and get through 12 books a year, even if they are written by Faulkner, Shelley, Dickens, and Shakespeare. Classical Memes are not my time period, my region. I’ve been forking out grad school apps like a factory this year, and they all ask me to be clear, and articulate, and focused, and certain: this is where I want to lay down my scholarship. One of my tutors got started with Russian serfdom, now works on Brazilian slavery. So I suppose there is some movement there. But I want to go in all directions now, not in twenty or thirty years.
Like Alan, I want to read everything right here, right now. Not just absorb the knowledge though; I want to enjoy these authors and ideas, and meaningfully engage. Is that really so much to ask?