Read not the Times; read the Eternities.
Henry David Thoreau
I’ve always struggled with how I process, manage and output information. I am basically an information junk food addict. I love consuming new and shiny bits of history, philosophy or modern commentary. A teaching company course catalogue is like a smorgasbord to a junk food junkie to me, so much to sample and enjoy — if I only could learn it all. Of course this worries me. I am concerned about the shallow way people interact with their information and I fear I’m doing the same shallow thing, albeit with an academic patina. And exactly why do I want knowledge? To what end am I aiming? This need for creative activity and contemplation is why I feel called to write and why you are reading these words. CS Lewis said we read to know we are not alone, I think he wrote to know he was not alone — and I’m doing the same. I want to flush out a set of personal information processing principles at some point resulting in a information processing manifesto. Here is my attempt to bootstrap that process. I’m sure wiser minds have figured this out and I would love to see this worked out much better.
I will season my information processing with a careful balance of new data, thinking/processing and passing on.
This means practically:
- I will always write a review of each book
- Just as I close my mouth when I’ve eaten too much of a food or am not hungry, I will develop the habit of listening to my mind tell me when I’ve had too much. I will therefore not motor through a bunch of pages just to finish the book or say I’ve read something.
- Quality, not quantity. I will try to be more selective in what I read so that I’m better at stopping and thinking about content.
I want to select the material that I want to change me.
This means that I want to use the selectivity of history to filter down what I read, and:
- I will chose classics over more recent literature
- I will not be an early adopter, I want to let time/reviews select down information
- I will quickly reject a book that doesn’t have the content I’m interested in. Life is too short to spend my time reading a crappy book.
- There is very little reason to read or watch current news. Why be ‘ahead’ of the news cycle? I don’t live in a bubble, I can get the news I need from others (Tim Ferris’ low information diet.) and very, very little news is relevant to our lives. It is the trends that matter: the signal from the noise, and those are available from good periodicals like the economist or technology review — even better, a modern history course or good book that takes the long view.
One of the worst things to happen, is to let the internet malaise suck time out of your day — the little rss checking, the scan of the headlines, the re-entry into facebook to assuage your sense of loneliness — anything to convince you that you are relevant, informed and loved. All these are fake substitutes for the real things and the result of a global trade that is being made for novelty and convenience over substance and depth. Welcome to our ersatz information junk food world — it is here to match our current food distribution system. Some remaining questions:
- Counterpoint. Should we be reading other perspectives? Should we make efforts to build friendships and hear other points of view? Yeah, of course we should but how much? Since “Diversity” is a current virtue, how much should we try to read things we disagree with? What limits are there? For example, morally offensive or certain ‘spritualy dark’ material would be off limits for me.
- Impressing others. How do we avoid (or do we embrace?) the real fact that a set of books read are modern trophies. I take great pride in being ‘well read’ and am concerned that there is a tension between being both ‘well read’ and ‘well changed’ by what one is reading. However, can the desire to impress others be harnessed for good? For one, sharing what I’m reading is a great way to share and learn what the other good books are. Can this be done without the desire to impress others about the book you are reading? A personal litmus test for me is to catch myself reading books that I have no interest in, but I want to say I’ve read.
- At what level does noise become signal? CNN headline news might be pretty noisy, but I feel a one week economist article is more filtered. Is the Iliad then, much more profound because it distills a long period of wisdom, even though it missed a huge amount of history and technology? Should we concerned about being relevant? I am totally opposed to relevance as a goal, but not exactly sure why.
- Devotional. Does it really make sense to process other information than the Bible for the modern Christian? Given the very limited time any of us have, wouldn’t we be better off memorizing or diving deeper into scripture. Why is there so much extra-biblical Christian literature and is that a good thing?
I need to flush this out, but these are some initial thoughts. I would love to get some comments and develop this further. Please comment below and I promise a much more well thought out piece on this.