Confessions of a Completist
I’m listening to In a Silent Way, the 1969 album that began Miles Davis’s electric period, but I’m not really listening. What I’m doing, while the music plays, is scanning reviews of all of Miles Davis’s other albums, and trying to figure out which of them to listen to next. He recorded a lot, it is intimidating, but if the past is much guide to the future, I will eventually listen to all of it.
Whatever the word suggests, being a completist comes in degrees. For some, it is enough to acquire and appreciate everything an author has published, or everything a musician has officially released. But the real fanatics want every diary page, or every bootleg and radio broadcast. Even for this most extreme variety, some stuff may be beyond the pale. Thom Jurek says of one Miles Davis CD that’s filled with crappy “radio transcriptions” that it is “no place to end up, even if you are a completist.” But for the extreme completist the boundary is way out there. There’s an Aerosmith live bootleg from 1978 that was “taped using a mono home recorder” and has “disappointing sound quality”—surely big red flags. The reviewer says “only a completist would want” it. Completists take that as a recommendation.
Completism might be motivated simply by a desire to find good stuff: good writing, good music, whatever. When I read Michael Chabon’s novel Moonglow I was enthralled, and immediately bought all of his novels—and his short story collections, and his essay collections—because I wanted to feel that feeling again. The sleuthing that constitutes completism can reward this desire. Bob Dylan is famous for leaving some of his best songs unreleased; their sweetness (or bitterness, as the case may be) was available, before the internet, only to certain fanatics. This kind of completeness, though, doesn’t move one to finish every page. Some of that Michael Chabon stuff, I started it, and it didn’t do it for me, and I put it aside.
Another kind of completism is motivated by the social standing that esoteric knowledge can provide. If you know about something great that few others have heard
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