Years ago, when I was a lifestyle writer at another newspaper, I wrote about information overload. I had a bad case of it, and I figured some readers could relate.
Words — enlightening, funny, vibrant words — surrounded me in quantities I could never hope to consume. My shelves were crammed with unread books. A slippery stack of magazines, including New Yorkers dating back to the previous presidential administration, teetered in the dining room. I kept up with the newspaper I worked for, but if I bought a Sunday New York Times I’d still be trudging through its Travel section on Thursday.
Ready for the punch line? This was before the internet.
Flash forward to the present. As of this moment, my laptop has browser tabs open to 31 different web pages.
News analyses and think pieces. Essays, some dull and others brilliant. An article debunking the “clean eating” trend. Research on the gender pay gap, including a 29-page paper by a Harvard professor. Something about adjusting workplaces to accommodate older workers. Something about hunting coyotes in urban areas. And of course, the omnipresent Facebook.
While I can’t pretend that no shred of celebrity gossip or BuzzFeed quiz has ever crossed my screen, much of what I read online is interesting, important, useful or beautifully written. It’s just too much.
And it gets worse. Each of these pages is sprinkled with intriguing links and eye-catching right-rail teasers — pixilated siren songs. Trying to eliminate one page, I wind up spawning five more. It’s endless Whac-A-Mole.
Meanwhile, I still have too many books that lie unread or unfinished. I still have my slippery stack of New Yorkers (not the same ones).
Oh, the internet hasn’t stopped me from reading books. In fact, I often acquire books after seeing glowing reviews online. Most of my favorite essay collections came to my attention via online samples by their authors. So the internet helps — sometimes. But it also squeezes my book-reading time into smaller pieces and less than ideal times, like right before I fall asleep.
The internet is like the universe. To grasp its immensity, you have to wrap your mind around the concept of infinity. To accept the existence of endless galaxies of words that you could never read in a lifetime. In a million lifetimes.
So how to choose? How to ignore the shiny things, the frivolous things, the merely mildly entertaining things, the true-but-I-kind-of-already-knew-that things? How to select, among those trillions (at least!) of words, which ones most deserve a chunk of your limited time on Earth? How to make time for books? And then how to pick the best books?
I’m hoping to address this problem in 2018. Learn to spot the most enriching material — and firmly close the other tabs.
The other day, I took a small first step. The latest New Yorker arrived. I scanned the table of contents. The articles were probably important, but none especially grabbed my interest. So I did something drastic. Instead of adding it to the slippery pile, I tossed it right into the recycling bag.
Does anybody else have this problem? Have you found strategies for dealing with it? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll publish the best ones in this space, and maybe (another resolution!) follow the advice.
Katy Read is a Star Tribune reporter.