Last Friday, after I finished my work for the week, I grabbed a cup of coffee and my Kindle and sat on my couch. I opened my latest collection of Instapaper articles, which had been sent to me that morning.
I read four or five articles. I deleted a few others after reading the first paragraph and deciding that they weren't worth my time. Of those I read, some were average, some were good, one was great. The great one made me think, made me reflect, as great pieces tend to do.
I had to go through eight or nine lesser articles to get to it. I started to think about the amount of time it had taken me to get to that article. It wasn't just the time devoted to reading the other articles. I had to spend some time on Twitter, or on the soon-defunct Google Reader, or some other cozy corner of the web, pruning and deliberating as I browsed. I had to carefully think about which publications to subscribe to, which to trust with my time and attention; the same for Twitter. Then I had to bookmark a number of pieces whose headline looked attractive to me. Only later did the reading come.
All in all, I'd spent a good deal of time manufacturing the serendipity felt when I came across that one great piece.
Looking up from my Kindle, I realized that I didn't want to read these articles anymore. I had all weekend. I wanted to read fiction. I wanted a story.
I'd started reading Madame Bovary ten days prior. I was somewhat mezmerized. Though the long, winding descriptions Flaubert is known for seemed to drag on at times, they were also enchanting. Flaubert had a way of picking you up, flying you to his chosen locale, and setting you down in the middle of the action. I wanted to go to France right then, from the comfort of my living room.
In fact, if I thought about it, I'd wanted to go to France even when I picked up my Kindle (which is also where Madame Bovary resides). Instead, though, I'd opened Instapaper. Why?
Because I felt a compulsion. My reading queue never stopped. As long as I've been using Instapaper (three years now?), I'd built a backlog of, say, twenty to thirty articles a week. This is only a hairlength short of a miracle: I have access to a personalized stream of reading, both short and longform, from a small group of trusted sources- all the time.
I felt such a sense of accomplishment when I came to the end of my digest, at the same time fleeting and lasting. I read twenty articles! I had so much more knowledge than when I'd begun, and I did this every week. The steady accumulation of wisdom is addictive.
But what if I wanted to skip a week? What if something else became more pressing, or I just wanted to focus on now for a bit, be present in the moment? If I'm being honest, a pang of guilt would come with that decision. Indeed, it had. I've opened my Kindle on a Sunday night, and, realizing that my queue was getting backed up, felt the need to trim it back down. Of course, I couldn't just empty my reading list- that would be cheating. It felt like cheating myself out of something, in fact.
My mind wandered back to Flaubert. I'd read, according to my Kindle, about twenty percent of the book in the first two nights I'd opened it, a Saturday and Sunday night. In the past week, I've read about three percent. Why? My enjoyment of it hadn't waned.
Instapaper was the culprit. More accurately, my Instapaper habits were at fault. On a somewhat mixed conscious/ unconscious level, I had gone directly to my Instapaper queue when I wanted to read- whether I was in the mood to read essays or not. I couldn't let the backlog get any bigger.
It felt like a homework assignment.
I wasn't reading for the joy of reading anymore. Sure, when I got to that great piece, everything slowed down. When I came across a certain combination of words that took my breath away, it was all worth it. But there was a compromise made. The effort required to reach that point came at a cost.
I suddenly realized why I haven't read nearly as much fiction as I had in years past.
All that's not to mention the sharing effect. I'd stopped reading Instapaper on my tablet or phone, opting for the Kindle digest, because I realized the effect that the ability to share the articles had on my reading. Again, I wasn't reading for the pleasure of it. I found myself interrupting my own reading, thinking man... Twitter has to hear about this. I thought of my own Twitter feed. Look at my last six tweets! This is the type of thing I value! Not meaningless gifs or endless inspiration porn- no sir, not me. I read the good stuff. Reading the good stuff is, of course, nothing to be ashamed of. But I had lost track of the point of reading that stuff. I wasn't reading to enrich my soul. I was reading to tweet, to solidify my online identity.
This is nothing new. Many have written about the need to isolate yourself in certain activites, to "turn off" the internet in order to truly immerse yourself in an experience- especially one as private as reading. It's just that I didn't think I would succumb. I was mindful.
I will not stop using Instapaper. It is my favorite technology of the past ten years. When used properly, it is food for the soul. It does, however, come with strings attached, and for awhile, I couldn't see the strings. I couldn't cut the strings if I couldn't see them. No, I will not stop using Instapaper.
I'll simply be more aware of the Instapaper effect.
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