Why I Won’t Be Reading You This Year
Back when I made my living as a writer, one corner of my kitchen counter was reserved for a stack of yellowing newspaper and magazine clippings that I absolutely had to get around to doing something with in the near future. Actually, it wasn’t a corner of the counter, it was a three-foot-long space, on a counter about two feet wide. That’s six square feet of clippings, piled anywhere from two to five inches high, depending on the week and the weather. (This was back in New York, where the weather could keep you inside for a week at a time—especially if you were a writer.)
Up to three cubic feet of newsprint. That’s a lot of articles. A few of them I had actually read already, most of them I’d skimmed, and all of them either related to a project I was working on (or, more often, one I was planning, since “working on” rarely got out of the low single digits), had something vaguely to do with a project I might one day actually cook up from a set of equally vaguely related notions and ideas, or were just so singular that I simply had to keep them. Since this practice ended nearly ten years ago, I find it impossible now to bring to mind any of the articles from this last category (other than an Anthony Lane cookbook review that I still have and which I regularly photocopy and hand out to foody friends), but trust me, they were gripping reads. And they were important.
Or so I, on some level, thought. These were not merely yellowing, forgettable pieces of journalism, but crucial reference material that would lend depth and color and veracity and insight to one or another of the “longreads” (not yet a thing) on which I was constantly scratching away, assignment or no. Not that I didn’t get out and actually meet and talk to people, or spend dusty hours in the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library. I did both of those in copious amounts, as well as all the cold calling, doorstepping, ridealonging, hanging out, and laborious transcribing that were the tools of the trade. But these pieces I’d collected on my countertop contained valuable factoids that could be woven together into broad insights, or threads of ideas that could be raveled to reveal yet deeper ideas that underlay them.
I’m talking about stuff like the shape of the United States power grid, a passing mention of Julian Jaynes that stirred something in me, or moments in the history of a stretch of highway which, I knew from other sources, once carried camels across the southwest U.S. An episode from the flooding of New Orleans could help bring John McPhee and Walker Percy together in a piece I might one day write — or write an outline for. All of this so-called “news” that piled up on my counter contained sheaf on sheaf of straw that could be spun into gold by the kind of cultural commentator I fancied myself (and occasionally was). It would be foolish to let them simply tip into the recycling bin without setting them aside to capture the value of their future utility.
And yet, that’s just what I did — or so I thought. I stopped being “a writer” in 2007, when I became what a friend of mine fondly calls “an IT guy.” I co-founded a startup, worked 16 to 20 hours a day, and moved to San Francisco a year later. When friends asked me if I missed writing, it took me a moment to understand what they were talking about. When I moved West, I’d done so with a purge. More like a cleansing fire that swept before it everything writerly it could find. Books, magazines, typewriters, mementos, all this and more was consumed, out the door to be gifted, grafted, or freecycled. And the pile of clippings, the manila folders stuffed with the ones I’d actually cabinet-filed, the back numbers of The New Yorker filled with articles I’d painstakingly reverse engineered in order to teach myself their style — all of it went down the recycling chute. (Yes, my building had one.) It was cathartic, as purges are, though it also wreaked some collateral damage (as purges do) that I’ve not yet fully explored. But that’s a topic for a different article.
My point is that I’d cured what I called my newspaper-clipping disease. And I truly believed that to be the case. Until this evening.
Many people get too many emails. My problem is, I get too many emails from myself. A Twitter notification lights up my phone: A VC has just posted his thoughts on what the on-demand economy will need this year. I don’t have time to read it, but I “need” to know what he has to say — just email the Tweet to myself and read it later. Amazon recommends something that isn’t what I want, and it isn’t what my wife wants, but it reminds me of an article about something my wife might want — just email the URL to myself for a follow-up. A Google Alert alerts me to a post about a board game featuring a fantasy map that I might like to post to a sorely neglected blog on the topic — click the link, then email myself the URL in case I ever get time. A blog post I need to read — email it to myself. A friend recommends a New York Times article — skim it, then send it to myself to read later. Oh, and don’t forget to star the emails coming in from Nuzzel, TechCrunch, Product Hunt, BetaList, Kickstarter, and, of course, Medium. Wouldn’t want to miss out on what any of them have to say.
One of my New Year’s resolutions is to “tell more stories.” I’m keeping it loosely defined both because I hate New Year’s resolutions, and because if I’m going to make one, it needs to be vague enough for me to tell myself I’ve accomplished it by year’s end. It’s January 3 at the moment, which means I can’t really be expected to have made much progress. But an hour or two ago, I found myself “rolling emails,” as I call it. Deleting spam. Opening new emails from one of the subscriptions above, scanning the links, deciding there’s nothing of interest, then deleting it. Deleting old unread emails, still unread, from the same sources. Opening emails from myself, finding they contain a link to an article, deciding I don’t have time to read it, labeling the email, archiving it, then moving on to the next one. Spiking reminders from Pocket, Instapaper, Facebook. Grooming my backlog of “unreads” and curating the flow of information that will one day flow all the way to my brain.
Only it doesn’t. They’re like that pile of newspaper clippings, are the saved-for-later emails that clog my archive (13,246 of them, at the moment) and the virtual piles of posts that have accreted in my Pocket, Instapaper, Delicious, and other accounts — I’ll never read most of them, will use almost none of the ones I do read, and I shouldn’t have saved them in the first place. I thought I’d cured my newspaper-clipping disease, but the sad reality is that I haven’t. I’m just as bad off as I was ten years ago, rapidly descending the slippery slope into idiosyncracy and crackpotism of not particularly high order.
Well, it ends today. When, earlier this evening, I found myself grooming my store of Articles That Shall Not Be Read, fresh from a New Year’s resolution to produce rather than consume more content, I finally admitted I still had a problem, and that something needed to be done.
Not that I’m unsubscribing from everything, mind you. But good god, if I can’t be bothered to read something within a day or two of discovering it, it just isn’t that useful to me. I’ve no doubt I will continue to email myself blog posts from friends, gift ideas for my wife, and the occasional article on the on-demand economy. But they won’t stick around my accounts as long — the “recycle” button on my email machine is going to see a lot more action this year.
Because the real story of all this piled-up information is not in the value it might have later. What I never understood through all those years of clipping papers, and all the more recent years of taxonomizing emails, is that the value of those things was realized as soon as I’d filed them; just my knowing about the existence of the Pacific Intertie was enough, there was no need to keep track of the particular details that had made it into whatever article about it I’d clipped but never really planned to read. If I actually needed that information, I knew how to find it again later. And if I didn’t, I knew how to use the impression its presence had left on me to flavor the piece I was writing, even if the thing itself went blissfully unmentioned.
It took getting fed up with myself to realize that I really was accomplishing what I set out to, simply by reserving some future moment at which I imagined I’d be able to accomplish it. That future moment proved totally unnecessary. All of the information I took in, no matter how fragmented or in what form — all the pieces I’d actually read, of course, the people I’d talked to, all the research I’d done, but yes, even all the articles I’d skimmed and clipped and never actually read — all of it, including the information left undiscovered, informed my particular view of the country and the world, and gave me my own uniquely colored pair of glasses through which to view it. I wasn’t missing out on anything by not reading the articles I’d clipped; they had already become part of the story I was telling, whether I ever read them or not. And that’s something that only became clear to me in the writing of this piece.
Which is part of why I want to tell more stories this year. Happy 2016.