Epidemic Reading Overload

By Shane Solar-Doherty

Settling into a cozy nook of an establishment in Harvard Square yesterday with some friends for a little breakfast, we started talking about another friend; an intelligent, introspective, handsome, charming, caring friend, who also has a history of jumping from task to task without so much as a warning.

“I think he’s got an advantage in times like these,” I said. I was talking about our fast-paced, instant-gratification consumed, click-here-and-see-this culture. I was thinking, here’s a guy who’s wired, who has that real staccato attention span, who has been prepared all his life for the greatest of all inventions, the internet.

Upon reflection, I don’t think I was being considerate, nor had I worded it right, when I said that our friend has an advantage. It’s far less black and white than how I had described it. But what I was thinking and trying to convey, before squelching my less-than-articulate observations with another chunk of waffle, was that the pacing of our lives has shifted in a way that it seems to be more disadvantageous for those of us who have had to cope with learning the same everyday multitasking skills, and more beneficial for those who have always had their focus driven in a multitude of directions simultaneously.

As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized that, if my philosophy had even a minuscule helping of validation, I was a bit envious of our friend. Because, on the one hand, here I am, overwhelmed for the first time by everything available to me — email, blog posts, the news, books, Twitter, articles, short stories, Facebook, baseball playoffs, pointless YouTube videos, etc. etc. Amen — and on the other hand, our friend has been living a very saturated sort of lifestyle since any of us ever met him.

Right now, I’ve got two windows of Google Chrome open, one with eleven tabs open, one with eight, and that’s after I’ve done some window cleaning. Many of them I’ve gotten around to opening, and intend to use some information from them in future posts. One of them is my email. Two are social media. Most of the rest are columns and stories from sites that I’ve either just recently discovered, or have become absolutely vital for my sanity — The Rumpus, The Millions, PANK. The list could go on but you know all of them already.

What I’m trying to find out here is where the hell am I supposed to start, what am I going to need to see and what am I going to inevitably end up missing anyway, and when does it all end? Never? Is that the answer?

Yesterday I went to a coffeeshop and read for two hours. I’d stop occasionally to take notes about something I’d read. My phone would vibrate. A text message. I’d stop reading and answer the text. Then I’d put the phone down. But I’d always have the urge to pick it up again, to see what I was missing, to see what I had missed, to anticipate what I would miss. After two hours, I got out of my seat and walked to a friend’s place, reading Generation Gap #6 on my SmartPhone the whole way. It’s the best article I’ve read in months.

Today, I decided to clean the living room. My roommates have been dealing with all my shit scattered in the living room since I moved in with them at the beginning of September. It’s not cool. I finally got around to it. I decided to listen to podcasts while I cleaned. It had been weeks since I’d listened to a podcast, and that’s because there’s so many other distractions that I don’t have the attention or time to listen to podcasts or to clean, which is the activity I’m usually involved in when listening to podcasts.

I think this is a problem. What I’m talking about here is a very different experience from that of just surfing and wasting hours. I’m trying to make the most out of my time. Why should I read this book now when I could be reading the review about the latest book from that awesome indie press? Why am I flipping through tweets from influential people when I could be reading that short story I want to review and influencing others? What link should I click next, the one everyone is commenting on, or the sleeper that no one’s discovered yet? I’m not the first to write about it from a personal point of view. But my need to make the most out of my time, to discover those snippets that I’ll carry with me, is excruciating. I have to fulfill my desire to read the absolute most necessary stuff that’s going to make me think, that I’ll remember tomorrow after I’ve absorbed dozens of other articles. I want to be sure that, when I finally flip the screen down on my laptop, I didn’t miss the piece that actually made everyone stop buzzing and start thinking.

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