Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Unmanageable Reading Life

Sometimes you find a viral video that's so spot-on about your day-today existence, it shakes you to the core. This, my friends, is that video, and it prompts that eternal, frightening question: "Did you read?"

(That sketch courtesy of the brilliant sketch comedy Portlandia.)

Everyone that works in media, the publishing industry, or the arts feels it's their job to consume culture. Some fly by the seat of their pants--following what they know they love, and taking up recommendations once they reach a certain level of mass popularity. (Case-in-point, the flood of Kindle readers who take on bestsellers from previous years once it becomes easy to carry their entire library with them.) Others plan out their year in culture in advance, annotating their calendars with premieres, book parties, and gallery openings. But no matter who you are in this business, inevitably you have to do your homework of following all hot cultural trends. Tools like Twitter and the Approval Matrix, as well as any number of brilliant cultural digests and podcasts, can be invaluable in this respect, but everyone has their own crazy method of staying informed. And when I say these methods can be "crazy", here is what I mean:

My daily reading routine: I click into my Google Reader. What gets read quickly becomes determined by a) what I find entertaining, b) what I find important, and c) what I think should probably be read to stay well-informed. The entertaining posts either get read right away or added to my Instapaper account for later reading, which I can do from my computer or from my iPhone. The important posts get opened and either quickly discarded or scheduled for Tweeting out both for the TK account and my personal account. (A few particularly provocative ones get sent out as posts on Facebook.) The informative posts, if they're news-related and informational in content, get read right away; if they're good for the brain, long thought-provoking pieces, they often fall to the very bottom of my Instapaper account, not to be seen again for several months later. (I have at least three pieces from recent New Yorkers languishing...)

Movie recommendations get thrown onto a Netflix queue. Book recommendations get added to a Goodreads account, then sorted by their publisher, release date, and content. (Novels, non-fiction, and cookbooks all get their own lists.) In my Google documents is a list of forthcoming books I want to review. In a desktop folder on my work computer are at least 20 PDFs and Word docs of books soon-to-be-published that I want to read. Sitting on my desk at home is a stack of books I've committed to reviewing, each with a post-in noting its on-sale date and who the review is for. For those books being read on deadline, the inside cover carries a day-by-day breakdown of how many pages should be read to finish the material on time.

I recently lay out this culture diet for a friend of mine, account by account, commitment by commitment. His response? "That's not a culture diet, that's a culture binge." Of course, he's right. In our information-saturated culture, where anything and everything is available for reading, for perusing, for mulling over late at night, it has become harder and harder to really digest anything. Impressions about great novels become muted when they're read back-to-back; music becomes background noise when it comes secondary to everything else; movies make less of an impact when they're viewed in marathons. (Unless of course these are like Lord of the Rings-extended marathons, in which you come to appreciate both the scope of Tolkein's universe and the benefits of shoes when going on epic quests.) "I don't remember what inspired me anymore," my friend said to me. "I can feel myself getting dumber, and I think I used to remember things better...did we have this problem in the 19th century?"

Of course we didn't. We used to live in a culture where books were more valued objects, where opportunities to consume culture were rarified occurrences, and often the privilege of the elite. (The theater and the opera can still be treated this way, thanks to $100+ tickets.) But with the opening-up of the Internet, a book can be read as a web page, an art gallery can be visited via Google, and new music can be selected based on a single song you already like. With so many new methods to find new entertainment, do we become more cultured? Or do we become more overwhelmed? Is it better to take small bites of art, or huge mouthfuls?

I don't have an answer to this question yet, but if you found a great article, and asked me today, "Did you read it?" I probably did. Whether I remember anything about it is the real conundrum.

1 comment:

  1. Good points. I'm gonna go ahead and diagnose myself with a related but dissimilar disorder in which I too engage in a daily binge of articles and commentary, but rather than digesting the droplets into neat little tweets, blog posts, and book reviews, I store it all up, hoping and knowing that one day this grotesque marinade will gush forth from my fingertips in one massive exegesis of paralyzing insight.