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Is Anything an “Experience” When Everything Is?
It’s not enough anymore just to read a new book,
I must have a “reading experience”

by James Charles
March 15, 2005

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Maybe it was because I slept in this weekend and missed the announcement, but when did everything become an “experience?”

I read a newspaper article the other day that examined the growing length and complexity of restaurant menus. A half dozen restaurateurs and chefs used the words “dining experience” to describe what, to me, always has been simply “going out to eat.” I guess when you have a “dining experience,” it costs more than if you’re just going to a restaurant for dinner with some friends. Certainly, the tip is going to be larger so the waiter is going to enjoy a better “gratuity experience.”

Then I began noticing how frequently the word is showing up where it never has appeared before, describing things in ways that never would occur to me.

A movie critic wrote about a “film-going experience” he’d had; he probably thought that sounded a lot more authoritative and grand than simply saying “I went to the movies.” Ordinary proles go to movies, but the film critic sitting two rows down from me is having an “experience” watching the same lousy flick while we each eat overpriced popcorn.

Experiences are everywhere.

In an article about a retail chain that had just remodeled all of its stores, an executive explained that the company spent several million dollars because it wanted to “enhance the shopping experience” for customers. The CEO of an airline was on a newscast last night talking about steps his company was taking to add to “the flying experience” of its passengers. I’ve made some purchases on eBay, which thoughtfully reminds me whenever I log in just how much fun the “eBay experience” can be. I received an e-mail this morning from a bookstore telling me that it is dedicated to making my “reading experience” more pleasurable and meaningful.

Apparently, it’s not enough anymore just to buy a new book that I want to read, I must have a “reading experience.” If I like the book and offer it to a neighbor, I guess I’m inviting them to have their own “reading experience.” But if I don’t like the book and toss it out halfway through, did I have a “bad reading experience” or did it become transformed into a “recycling experience”?

Maybe because of the Internet, cable channels in the hundreds, and on-demand everything including on-demand acquaintances who know each other only through chat rooms and e-mail, we have to label everything an experience because nothing is a genuine experience anymore. It represents a kind of “language creep,” where glossed-up words are found to make the mundane seem meaningful.

This may also explain another word that I’ve seen used a lot lately: “Community.” I’ve always thought of “community” as the neighborhood where I live but it seems I’m being too limiting. When you look carefully, you discover that every human activity has developed its own “community.”

Not long ago, a friend was leaving her job at Second City and moving to New York to work in public relations. She told me that while she was looking forward to living in Manhattan, she would miss the “comedy community.” The what? Where is the comedy community? Is it downtown or somewhere out in the vast, sprawling reaches of the 905 area code? Are all of the neighbors always funny? Some of mine are a bit dour, so I might want to move to the comedy community if I could just find it on a map.

No one has a job or career anymore, merely working at a company: They also belong to a “community.”

A lawyer friend speaks of the “legal community.” I heard a gallery owner talking about the “artist community” on a show on Bravo! a few weeks ago. I’ve heard other people refer to the “writer’s community,” a “high tech community,” the “entertainment community” which, it turns out, has subdivisions such as the “movie community,” the “music community” and so on. As Toronto searches for a new police chief, a member of the Police Services Board told a reporter the choice would be someone who’d mesh well with the “police community.” I gave a speech recently to a group that described itself as part of the “advertising community.” Silly me, I walked into the room thinking I was going to address a group of ad execs and creative types.

I would not be surprised if there is a “community’s community.”

What is it like to be part of these “communities”? Do members invite each other over to help paint the front porch? Are people from one community allowed to mix socially with people from another? Do they have special soccer teams for their kids? Can I address mail to somebody by just putting their name and “Wretched Community, Ontario” on the letter? Are there special clothes to wear, or rules to follow?

I wonder if I am part of a “community” and don’t know it. I certainly would never knowingly join a “community”; it sounds much too post-modern. I’m far more content being part of the “community experience” where I live, even if there are a few dour neighbors.

James Charles, an ex-pat American,  is a writer who has lived in Toronto since 1991. His next book is Life In The Dominion: An American’s Mostly-Affectionate Look At Living In Canada. E-mail him at:

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