Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Information overload?

Kevin Holtsberry writes:

I wonder at what point you have more information coming in than you can possibly handle. I feel like I am at that point right now. I have never been very good at focusing my interests.

I feel his pain. Between the internet, online booksellers, and magazines, information comes at us in torrents. It really is like trying to drink from a firehose.

But i have come up with a few coping mechanism.

1. The most liberating advice on reading i've seen came from William Casey, who actually wrote a pamphlet called "How to Read a Book" while he was CIA director. According to Joe Persico, Casey counseled, "Never feel you have to read a book through. The author isn't there. He won't feel insulted. "

Casey also recommended that you start by checking the bibliography, notes, and index. That way you can jump right in and see if there is anything good or new inside.

That was liberating because i already read that way and was ashamed at my weakness and lack of discipline. Thanks to Casey, i could embrace my nonlinear reading habits.

2. Think of books as red wine purchased while young. No one expects you to drink all your 2002 vintage before you buy any from 2003. Unread books on the shelves are just like a well-stocked wine cellar. Their time will come.

3. I keep a supply of the little Post-It flags at hand. That way I can easily mark passages i think have merit. It's easy to get back up to speed on an unfinished book when you can quickly review the highlights of what you have read before.

Plus, if you leave them in when you're finished, it makes it easier to refer back to the book even years later.

4. I stopped reading pundits. Sullivan or Kurtz on the war are wastes of time. Ditto Frum on anything, Brooks on most things, Krugman on politics, etc. There are now experts out there who write intelligently on almost anything i might be interested in. When reading about Iraq or the War on Terror, I'd rather read what a former military man writes or the thoughts of a military historian. Michael Barone has forgotten more about American politics and demographics than Brooks and Frum will ever know collectively and that doesn't change if you add Rick Lowry and John Podhoretz to the mix.

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