On my to-do list today (besides calling my accountant, planning my summer wardrobe and finding out what's making that strange noise behind the fridge) are the following tasks:
1. Watch the final episode of the first season of Downton Abbey. (Do Mary and Matthew ever get together? No, don't tell me, I'm nearly there...)
2. Finish reading We Need To Talk About Kevin before the film comes out and everyone starts banging on about it again.
3. Read David Nicholls's One Day before watching the movie, thereby being able to take part in communal "Anne Hathaway is no Emma Morley" rants.
4. Finish my 30 Rock box set so I understand the references to it in Tina Fey's memoir, Bossypants.
5. Read Bossypants.
6. Listen to everything by Jessie J.
7. Rectify the gaping vampire-shaped hole in my cultural knowledge by watching the Twilight movies and maybe a bit of True Blood.
This is page one of my cultural to-do list. The other four pages have gone missing – lost, I assume, in the gently swaying towers of DVD box sets, books and CDs that are threatening to engulf my desk at any moment. You will have gathered I am suffering from entertainment overload. No sooner have I become aware of a talking-point DVD box set (Breaking Bad, anyone?) and added it to my Amazon basket than it is superseded by something with even shinier "must-see" credentials. And there I am, getting on nicely with Shawn Ryan's The Shield when The Chicago Code (also created by Ryan) pops up, ready to race for pole position on my to-watch list. What to do? Alternating between two gritty cop dramas will end in extreme confusion. Attempting to watch both will end in extreme sleep deprivation.
Then there are those even more worrisome cultural events that can't be consumed from the comfort of my sofa. From the "unmissable" art exhibitions to the "must-see" plays of the season and the "hottest" restaurants in town, there are things I'm missing out on that can't be purchased from Amazon.
I draw comfort from the fact I'm not the only one failing to hold back the tide of "must-consume-now-before-you're-the-only-human-alive-who-doesn't-know-about-it" culture. Websites like www.thecoolhunter.net are hugely popular, with their newsletters pinging into our inboxes with suggestions for what to check out, from art to architecture, in cities around the world. If they're doing so well, and email updates are needed, then I'm clearly not the only one playing (and losing) the game of culture catch-up. It's great news for the compilers of "see/hear/read it before you die" lists. Where would they be if we took a collective decision that we'd seen, heard and read enough and were going for a long lie-down?
So if we're all falling behind culturally, then why are we at such pains to hide the fact? "Because in this digital age, where the acquisition of information is easy, it is the prioritisation and dissemination of that information that becomes important," says Dr Jane Prince, principal lecturer in psychology at the University of Glamorgan in Wales. "If everyone has access to the same new TV series, the kudos comes firstly in spotting it and then in flagging it to other people in your social circle." If you're the first to use the latest social media outlet to do this, then that kudos is even greater.
While canvassing friends on this issue, I uncovered an array of clever strategies designed to make them seem more in touch with the zeitgeist than they actually are. Primary schoolteacher Lizzie advocates unashamed cultural infidelity: getting it on with whatever the talking-point book/DVD/CD of the moment is, even if you drop it, unfinished, from your affections the minute the fuss has died down. Thus, you can bluff your way through conversations with a grasp of the basic storylines or themes and look fabulously cultured up.
Interior designer Bella goes further still and claims that, in most cases, telling outright lies about your cultural consumption is necessary. I observed this to be true when we both attended a dinner party and she was asked about the relative merits of The Wire and Generation Kill (written by the same people but neither of which she has watched). Bella set down her wine glass before replying that they were "differently paced and plotted". I will be using that one if ever asked to compare Boardwalk Empire to anything.
Working on the assumption, however, that our quest to get ahead of the cultural curve is at least partly a quest for enjoyment (as opposed to simply an exercise in one-upmanship), then we are going to have to relax a little. It is simply not possible to read the entire shortlist of the Man Booker Prize while simultaneously keeping abreast of HBO's output and spotting the next Adele. My writer friend Katy advises a time-lapse approach: if you haven't managed it within, say, a year of it coming out, then youre never going to get round to it and should stop fretting. This strategy is certainly appealing and would mean I could finally lay Entourage to rest. But why does that leave me with a lingering sense of guilt?
"This desire for a flawless grip on culture is another manifestation of the pressure that modern women put on themselves to be perfect," says Dr Prince. "As well as being successful career women, mothers and excellent cooks, we’re now aiming to be a sort of cultural arbiter to boot."
And meanwhile, without enough hours in the day to keep all the plates spinning, we continue to play culture catch-up. In fact, as I write this, I learn that Adele's album, 21, has now been at number one for 16 weeks. If she could just hold it there a few more weeks I promise I'll get round to buying it...
6 ways to get ahead of the curve
The TV Series
Set in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and from the creator of cult hit The Wire, Treme is slower-paced but gathering a loyal following.
The Latest Zombie Series
The Walking Dead
Starring Andrew Lincoln (Egg from This Life), this graphic zombie drama has been a surprise hit. Catch up now while you wait for season two.
How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
Addressing life's important questions, including whether or not men really hate us, this book will provide endless dinner-party chat. Join the debate.
The Sydney Theatre Company's Gross und Klein
Starring Cate Blanchett, this surreal German play promises to match the must-see status of last year's successful Uncle Vanya.
The foodie experience
Tired of your local Thai? Get on the list for underground dinner parties. In Melbourne, try Zingara Cucina. Sydney-siders, get in touch with TheTableSessions and Secret Foodie.
The next pop sensation
This indie-dance trio from Sydney are being hailed as the new Presets. Get onto them before commercial radio starts playing them nonstop.