reading more, reading less

I realized the other day that I’m reading more daily than I ever have before, but that I hadn’t opened a book in about 2 weeks. For this I blame both my own inclinations and the technology which enables me to pursue them: RSS feeds, or more prosaically, blogs.

When I first began seriously working in technology, I became a contract systems administrator, working with a consulting group composed nearly entirely of ferociously bright, technically agile, people, most of whom could multi-task like a many-armed Shiva on speed. A good number of my coworkers began as or became close friends of mine, and over the course of a day I’d observe them interacting with clients, sharing expertise on our company IRC server, writing devastatingly cutting missives to social mailinglists, and keeping an eye on the news of the day. Impressive, yes, but initially perplexing to me. Over the course of 15 minutes, I’d watch the person I was apprenticed to do a cycle amongst their carefully placed terminal windows: work email (rare), work IRC channels (technical), social mail (moderate), social IRC channels (chatty), web browser, and then back to the task at hand, which was fieldstripping a client’s Powerbook Duo to put in more memory. And then again for the next 15 minutes, and the next after that. Naively, I thought that it would be far easier to simply finish the memory installation and take a 45 minute lunch break to look at the other stuff (though I never said this out loud).

Soon enough I was the experienced hand at this particular job site, and despite my earlier skepticism, found myself doing my own version of this dance. This was 1997, and more and more companies were putting websites on the net; my list of sites to check grew steadily. News sites, friends’ homepages, old corporate entities and new technology startups, blinking graphics, the ubiquitious yellow roadsign-like “Under Construction” images which ten years later you have to look fairly hard to find, the Internet has come so far. Each site updated sporadically, if at all, and in a very mild version of a kid’s Christmas Eve imaginings that Santa Claus might have come by now and wouldn’t it be a good idea to get out of bed and check the stockings just in case, I’d go and check a series of bookmarked URLs for anything novel, receiving just the kind of irregular reinforcement good animal trainers know will induce astoundingly repetitive behavior in pretty much every animal known to (and including) man.

Not something I’m particularly proud of, the amount of time I spent checking for mostly trivial informational flotsam, but it happened, and I was hardly atypical among my peers for earning a stupid salary to solve technical problems and “surf” the web between crises. Surfing, though, is probably a less apt metaphor for what we did and do than “channel flipping.” “Surfing” sounds like fun; this was the equivalent of picking up a magazine at the doctor’s office and rapidly fanning it in front of my face, looking for a good article.

Now, some ten years later, the habit’s only worsened. Easy access to RSS aggregators originally saved me time – the twenty or thirty sites I wanted to keep an eye on, all gathered together in one place! What could be better? – until I turned around and filled the saved time with … more RSS feeds. Each of them potentially interesting, each of them recommended by someone or carrying a news snippet I wanted to know more about, until I’d put nearly 150 feeds into Bloglines and now had a place on the web to go where I’d be guaranteed to find new content whenever I had a momentary urge to distract myself from a difficult task at hand.

I read too damn many blogs. I spend my reading time scanning headlines, looking for the (many) articles that pique my interest, and while I love the panoply of information I have access to, I hadn’t sat down to read a book in weeks before getting on this flight to Tucson. And it turns out I miss reading books with the same avid thrill I used to, and I can see that ducking off a task to go scan headlines now makes me feel a little mentally seasick, later.

So as an experiment, I’m knocking my blog subscriptions down to just those written by my friends, and those involving comics, and just one or two of the food/political/news/BoingBoing feeds. We’ll see how many I can let go of, and how it’ll feel to not see updates as frequently.