On a recent short getaway I was sitting over breakfast one morning with my friend B, clearly jonesing from both the absence of my netbook and the dearth of decent newspapers available at the hotel at which we were staying. While I pushed my eggs around my plate, B pulled out his Kindle, bought the day's New York Times for me, downloaded it and handed me his little machine to read on while I ate. I was nearly moved to tears: it was an extraordinary gesture-- akin to handing a drunk her first drink of the day.
I felt I could make it through the next couple of hours.
Once upon a time, it was enough to wake, bring in the newspaper from the front step, read it while I drank my tea , check in with NPR throughout the day and, perhaps, catch the evening news. I felt informed. Now, I make my tea, immediately sit down at the computer, read the the New York Times online (no home delivery is available where I live), check in with the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post, Salon and Slate, read Mike Allen's Politico playbook and peruse another half dozen news and information sites. All before I even look at my personal emails.
During the day I have my car radio tuned to an assortment of radio talk shows, and in the evening I check in with as much cable news as possible. I actually click on the links that appear in my twitter feed, read several magazines online and look at a half dozen blogsites. On Sunday I run out early and buy in paper form the New York Times--which I then read throughout the week. If I don't catch the cable news shows I think I should, I access them online. I peruse the sites my friends on Facebook and other social networking sites recommend. At the gym, warming up on the treadmill, I click between MSNBC's Morning Joe and Fox. And I still receive, in paper form, a half dozen magazines from The New Yorker to Harper's to Elle.
None of my excessive intake makes me feel a whole lot more informed than I felt when I read one paper a day and listened to one or two news programs but although I am overloaded with information, I still can't make myself stop reading or accessing. (A recent article in Monday Note which talks about the need for speed in the media went right to my heart, too.)
Articles by Rebecca Traister in Salon and Laurie Winer (in a review of Hamlet's Blackberry in the New York Times Book Review) as well as Gary Shteyngart's wonderfully self-deprecating and brilliant essay also in the Book Review have decried our necessity to be plugged in, phone-wise, all day long. (I am deliberately not linking to those articles here because that is one of my problems: each piece I read has links which I then have to follow, which then take me other places and...) But that's far from my real problem. Although I, too, am attached to my Blackberry and find it helpful when waiting in line or for my daughter somewhere to be able to "read" the news stories that come through my email, it is not my phone that is the real problem for me. It is not unplugging that particular device. It is, instead, unplugging from my obsessive attachment to information in general. It is unplugging my brain from its overwhelming need to know everything about everything.
This is not really a new disease with me. it's just a variation on an old one. For most of my life I have needed to have at least a dozen books on my shelves that I have not yet read. The thought of wanting something to read and not having a choice, a wide range of choices actually, makes me nervous. Very nervous. I continue to buy and collect books even as there is no way I can ever read them fast enough to even try and keep up. I have considered the notion of getting rid of one book for every new one I bought but that idea quickly went by the wayside. A major move three years ago forced me to cull through my books and only keep the ones I absolutely had to have (plus a supply of the classics so my teenaged daughter would also always have something to read) but in the three years since my move I have, alas, amassed an even larger number of unread books. None of this, of course, has stopped me from buying more book. Ever. Even as I have often said that I could stop eating, sleeping, living in general, and just sit down and read all the books I wish to read right this moment and never be done before I die.
But that particular obsession (seeing my house as a dessert island on which I might be stranded without something to read) has, in the past couple of years, been replaced by the yet more dangerous obsession to electronically access every bit of information that seems remotely interesting to me or that I might need to make an informed decision about the events of the day. Or that, God forbid, might come up in conversation somewhere, at some point. Ever.
I can partially parse my problem by the visceral reaction I have to comments on articles I read. Too often as I am reading them I think: That person hasn't read such and such. That person clearly has no idea what he is talking about. That person is getting his information from one single source instead of ferreting out the real truth. It's kind of the way some people watch reality television shows with the express interest of making themselves feel superior. But the real gist of my problem is probably a latent paranoia. If I don't stay on top of what's being reported, wool of some sort will be pulled over my eyes. Don't we need to know the real truth behind what's happening in the Gulf? Isn't the recent expose on our intelligence agencies and their information gathering in the Washington Post a must-read? Who else will stay on top of Congress's shenanigans? But those are just the tip of the iceberg for me. If I miss Bob Edwards or "On Point" or "Fresh Air" or "Talk of the Nation" I feel bereft. If I don't catch Jon Stewart's latest diatribe or Rachel Maddow's fresh reporting I feel remiss in my duties as a citizen. And I think it necessary to also catch news from sources other than those I trust: The guilt! The responsibility! They all fuel my obsession. And the truth is that, like any addiction, my particular torment gives me as much pleasure as it does those rumblings of guilt.
I hear from others, smart people, too, people that I respect (sort of), that it really isn't necessary to read everything that comes my way. I know, intellectually, that that is true. But telling me to stop, asking me to take a break even, is like requesting any other addict to just quit his or her addiction cold turkey. I need a program, a patch, a support group or some number of steps (probably well more than twelve) to help wean me off my compulsion to absorb. I could check myself into some place sans a friend with a Kindle, a place with no satellite service, like Shteyngart's oasis: I could do that for a week, a month, even longer, maybe. I could. The problem is that once I returned to "civilization" I would be so far behind it would take me months to catch up.