This is an understandable response to the information environment in which we find ourselves, I think. After all, there’s just so much useful and interesting stuff out there, and so little time, that it feels incumbent on us to take ownership, so to speak, of the little we do manage to consume – either by literally memorising it, or storing it in some well-organised external system. Otherwise, wasn’t reading it in the first place a waste of our precious time?
This utilitarian perspective is easy to internalize in productivityland. But it shares the same core as the mindset that books aren’t worth reading, that truths ought to be distillable down into a short listicle, that fiction is a waste.
I suspect part of the urge to read more, learn more, is related to self-doubt. When we lack confidence in our opinions, when we lean on quoting others instead of using our own words, it’s rooted in fear that we are not enough. We seek more information to affirm our beliefs; the quest for certainty is a classic expression of anxiety. As a recovering perfectionist, I have suffered from difficulty making decisions and lack of confidence in my choices that I hoped learning more and practicing more would resolve. (Obviously it’s a balance — learning nothing and basing opinions solely on vibes isn’t a great approach either.)
It’s easy to operate on the assumption that the main point of picking up a book – a non-fiction or work-related book, at any rate – is to add to your storehouse of data, hoarding information and insights like a squirrel hoarding nuts, ready for some future moment when you’ll finally take advantage of it all.
But that’s a recipe for living permanently in the future, never quite reaping the value of life in the present moment. Better, I’d say, to think of reading not as preparation for living later on, but as one way of engaging with the world, one way of living, right here in the present.
[T]he point of reading, much of the time, isn’t to vacuum up data, but to shape your sensibility.
Sometimes we should trust the vibes. Our individualist perspective means that each person is expected to become their own expert in every topic so they can have “informed opinions.” Instead, what if we let ourselves lean on community as well as expertise to guide us? Accept that we cannot master all subjects, and don’t need to hold a strong opinion on everything. I want my nonfiction to have opinions, not pretend at neutrality. And I think that’s linked to what Burkeman’s talking about: we’re choosing whose opinions to listen to when we read an article or a book.