By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 24, 2016
I was cleaning out old magazines and stopped to read about Empress Theodora in The New York Review of Books. Evidently much of history about Theodora comes from ancient gossip, and a new book puts things right. The past is like today. Procopius, an ancient writer we use to remember Theodora, would have loved Twitter and shaming. Trying to get an accurate picture of Byzantine court life, politics and actual events is extremely difficult. Real history is information overload, and most of accepted history are Tweets.
Here’s the thing, I’m suffering from a monstrous hangover caused by information overload. I want to know everything and can’t. I don’t know why read magazines anymore, especially ones like The New York Review of Books, where their essays are comprehensive, written by extreme experts, that make me think I’m completely uneducated. Reading one issue feels like I’ve learned more history than all I studied in K-12 schools. And it hurts. Often I can only read one essay before my head seems like a fission bomb reaching critical mass.
But if I stop trying to learn, living feels like killing time watching television while waiting to die. I can’t win either way. I’m starting to wonder if internet reading isn’t shorting out my neural pathways. Mostly I headline graze. There’s got to be some kind of happy median between Ph.D. scholar and Tweet view of every topic.
Generally when I feel this way, I return to science fiction, a cozy little artificial reality I discovered in my youth. I used to think the science fiction universe was small enough to comprehend, but in the last week, I’ve discovered inflationary events have expanded it well beyond my limits of observation. Now I understand why people dwell on highly focused specialties. Being a generalist is impossible. That also explains why the human race is too stupid to survive. Our brains are too tiny to comprehend even a vague model of larger reality. Our politicians think in sound bites because that’s the limit of their ability. We disagree with them because our 140 character capacity sees the same reality differently.
Part of my overload agony comes from growing older and sensing my brain slowing down. I hate giving up on keeping up. Yet, I also realize to survive aging I must jettison what I can’t mentally carry. I have to discover a practical diet of information consumption. I need Marie Kondo to declutter my mind. And I need to stop beating myself up because I can’t lift knowledge I once easily pressed.
Dirty Harry revealed exquisite wisdom when he said, “A man must know his limitations.”
Since I’m retired I assume I have all the time in the world, so I should be able to keep up. But it doesn’t work that way. Every new fact requires time to digest. If I don’t think about what I’m learning I forget it immediately. And even when I do contemplate new insights, it appears my brain is erasing something old to squeeze in something new. I not getting ahead anymore. Reading an essay from The New York Review of Books gives the illusion I’m learning something significant, but it’s going to be gone after I go to sleep tonight. I hate that. I truly hate that. I’m living in The Invasion of the Mind Snatchers.
Currently, I can comfortably manage one book, one audiobook and two or three documentaries a week. I just can’t make myself finish magazine articles anymore, or even read longer news reports on the web. I graze web pages. I’m not sure if internet reading is good for me. I’ve learned it’s better to spend my mental energy on fewer topics. I waste too much time chasing too many subjects. Web surfing is a very pleasant diversion, letting me think that I’m keeping up with the world, but I’m fooling myself to believe I’m actually learning anything.