I’m taking stock of my reading. Almost every morning, I wake up, pour a cup of coffee, and log on to the internet. Unless I still need to prepare my class notes, I’ll generally click through what I’ve come to think of as a standard set of sites to stay abreast of news and ideas:
- Metafilter.com: Users of this site aggregate the ‘best of the web’ and many days I can use up my allotted internet time just following the links there. Since it’s populated by user-selected content, there’s an assortment of political and IT news, editorializing, random meme jokes like the RickRoll or LOLCat, and so on. I gravitate to the political and technological posts: the commentaries by other uses tend to supply the highest level of internet deliberation available. It’s a real community, in which I’m an infrequent participant.
- Financial Times, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, and Google Finance: For the last six months or so, these sites have been helping me understand the economic world and the mess in which we’ve landed. Most days I’ll skim the headlines at Bloomberg and WSJ, and then turn to the Financial Times for the best actual reporting and analysis. I’ve been watching as Rupert Murdoch turns the Wall Street Journal into a partisan forum, and the Financial Times has definitely won my respect for taking advantage of the sudden hole in financial reportage. Plus, the pink background is very calming during market collapse.
- Washington Post: My wife reads the New York Times, and I’ll generally encounter all the must-read articles from the Times at some point during my week, but since I live in DC I like to check in with the local news. Having lived in NYC as well, I must say that WaPo juggles its local/national/international responsibilities better than the New York Times.
- Bookforum: Looking for controversy? Hoping for some long-form articles from the likes of the New Yorker or Harper’s? This is the place. Three times a day, bookforum posts a bevvy of links to generally great writing. This replaces Arts and Letters Daily, which frankly had started going heavy on the controversy and given up on quality.
- The Big Picture: The Boston Globe aggregates photographs the way other sites aggregate blog posts or newspaper articles. Their latest picture spread on the recession captures the part of the downturn that words and statistics mostly fail to express. Go there now.
- SignandSight.com: Once a week or so, I’ll check in with international news, generally using Sign and Sight’s international roundup of magazines. That takes me to the Guardian, the Economist, ResetDoc, and the Times Literary Supplement, and summarizes articles from European magazines like L’espresso and Le Nouvel Obseravateur.
- ReadMoreWriteMoreThinkMoreBeMore, Public Reason, Peter Levine: I still read a number of small blogs on a regular basis, using Google Reader. I’ve got about thirty subscriptions, but many of them don’t really post regularly or else they pile up so quickly I just skim the headlines. (Brian Leiter’s blogs are like that. When does he find the time, damn it?!?) Dr. J is a friend, Public Reason is the best source for political philosophers I’ve found, and Peter Levine is a polymath who works on civic engagement. They all post regularly enough to be counted as daily reading. (In the case of Public Reason, this is partially because people post papers that take several days to digest.)
- All this ignores my other internet uses: Gmail manages all my e-mail, and I stay in touch with folks using Facebook and Twitter as well. I buy most books through Amazon, most of my clothes from Lands End and Charles Tyrwhitt. I watch television on Hulu. I blog here. I bank online, pay my credit card online. I’m in the process of setting up a Windows Home Server for my family to do regular backups and share Itunes and other media. I am the very model of a modern networked know-it-all.
So why am I listing all my daily reading? It’s not to show off my breadth of knowledge, I assure you. This isn’t bragging: it’s a cry for help! People often describe reading the internet as ‘drinking from a firehose.’ I think that’s right, and I think it’s one more reason to judge poorly the prudence of anyone who makes a serious effort at it. Rather, I’m working on diagnosing a problem, which is that the writerly world is all here, at my fingertips, and it’s fascinating: beautiful, complex, and unjust. But it’s too much, and ‘more’ is the enemy of ‘enough.’ Basically, staying au courant is beginning to eat up a little bit too much of my time. I need to pare it back, but that’s not how I’m built: I’m a ‘more’ junkie from way back.
All this takes me back to Stephen Elliot’s “month without the internet,” his effort to break the “addiction to continual bursts of small information.” It also takes me back to the first book I was asked to read as an undergraduate, Sven Birkerts’ Gutenberg Elegies:
The physical arrangements of print are in accord with our traditional sense of history. Materials are layered; they lend themselves to rereading and to sustained attention. The pace of reading is variable, with progress determined by the reader’s focus and comprehension.
The electronic order is in most ways opposite. Information and contents do not simply move from one private space to another, but they travel along a network. Engagement is intrinsically public, taking place within a circuit of larger connectedness. The vast resources of the network are always there, potential, even if they do not impinge on the immediate communication. Electronic communication can be passive, as with television watching, or interactive, as with computers. Contents, unless they are printed out (at which point they become part of the static order of print) are felt to be evanescent. They can be changed or deleted with the stroke of a key. With visual media (television, projected graphs, highlighted “bullets”) impression and image take precedence over logic and concept, and detail and linear sequentiality are sacrificed. The pace is rapid, driven by jump-cut increments, and the basic movement is laterally associative rather than vertically cumulative. The presentation structures the reception and, in time, the expectation about how information is organized.
Further, the visual and nonvisual technology in every way encourages in the user a heightened and ever-changing awareness of the present. It works against historical perception, which must depend on the inimical notions of logic and sequential succession. If the print medium exalts the word, fixing it into permanence, the electronic counterpart reduces it to a signal, a means to an end.
Birkerts argues that this transition threatens the humanities, especially, and I think he’s probably right. As he puts it elsehwhere: “Part of any essential understanding of the world is that it is opaque, obdurate.” Birkerts is fighting other battles in his book, battles against something called “postmodernism” that probably was always a chimera, but in this he is on to something. The world is to be loved in its distance and difficulty, not lusted after as a series of nuggets to be consumed, the newest off the line of ersatz products to be used until they’re used up.
And so, I’m taking stock of my reading to see what I can safely throw out. There’s always a bit too much. If I were wiser and a faster reader than I am, I’d also read the Le Monde and the Christian Science Monitor. In reality, many days I just stop at Metafilter and then get on with my day, but the feeling that I’ve left something undone haunts me.
As a culture we’ve been arguing lately whether Google makes us stupid or smart, but that’s not really the question: does it make us happier? Does it give us tools for real communal engagement? Does it engage our souls in a virtuous activity? Is it sustainable? Does it help us solve our problems? Is it what we’d want to be doing if we actually stopped to look at how we’re using it and what the alternatives are?
UPDATE: Can you tell I’ve been teaching Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics?
UPDATE 2 via xkcd: