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How to decide what to read (and what not to read)?

Like you, dear Internet readers, I have no shortage of reading material. I have ready access to more engaging, high quality, informative and relevant information than I can possibly digest. Every day, I have to choose what to read, and what to pass by. This seems like an important thing to do well, and I wonder if I do a good enough job of it. This is just one example of a larger breadth/depth problem, but I’m finding the general problem difficult to stomach, so I’m focusing on reading for the moment.

These are my primary sources of reading material on a day-to-day basis:

  • Email – I read everything which is addressed to me personally. I don’t reply to all of it, and my reply time can vary greatly, but I am able to keep up with reading it, and I consider it important to do so. I am still subscribed to a selection of mailing lists, but I find them increasingly awkward to manage. There are a few which I scan on a daily basis, but most of them I process in batches when I’m offline and traveling. I’m subscribed to far fewer mailing lists than I was five years ago, though I feel they are still the most effective online discussion facility available. I find myself doing more and more discussing in real-time on IRC and by phone rather than by email.
  • Blogs – I subscribe to a few big aggregators and a random sampling of individual blogs. Most of them I scan rather than read. I do most of this offline, while in transit, and so I don’t tend to follow links unless they’re promising enough to save for later. I’ve recently stopped trying to “keep up” (scan every post) on most of them, and instead just “sample” whatever is current at the time. It feels like turning on a television, flipping through all of the channels, and turning it off again. Even when I do find something which I feel is worth reading, it’s hard for me to focus my attention after a long session of scanning. I do find a lot of good stuff this way, but I’m pretty dissatisfied with the overall experience. I never feel like I’m looking in the right places.
  • Shared links – I share my own links publicly, and follow those shared by friends and acquaintances. I do this with multiple groups of people who don’t connect directly, and pass items back and forth between those groups. I place an increasingly high priority on reading items which are shared by people I know, more than on trying to follow the original sources, because the signal-to-noise ratio is so good: my personal network acts as a pretty good filter for what will interest me. I have the nagging feeling that I need to maintain a balance here, though. If I read mostly what other people are sending me, I feel like I’m living in a bubble of like-minded people and fear that I’ll lose perspective.
  • News – I read hardly any “proper” news. I don’t subscribe to any newspapers, and generally don’t read the online versions either. I do read articles which are shared by people in my network. Traditional media never seems to have the right scope for me. There may be particular journalists, or particular topics I’d like to follow, but news outlets simply don’t group their content in a way which fits my mind.
  • Books – Remember these? My diet of books has shrunk drastically since I started reading more online media. Devoting my full attention to a book just doesn’t feel as energizing as it used to. I hesitate at the prospect of sinking so many hours into a book, only to decide that it wasn’t worthwhile, or worse, to forget what I learned as I’m bombarded by bite-sized, digestible tidbits from the Internet. I feel sad about losing the joy of reading I once had, and want to find a way to reintegrate books into my regular diet.

How do you decide what to read, and what not to read? How does your experience differ between your primary information sources? How have you tried to improve?


Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 12, 2010 at 19:35

10 Responses

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  1. I nearly left the most enormous comment here, but luckily turned it into a blog post: http://puzzling.org/logs/thoughts/2010/June/13/reading-habits


    June 12, 2010 at 23:03

  2. Hi Matt,

    imagine that you are 109 now and you may not be around next year, what is important? what will you do/read for life?

    in my case, i have been sticking to “1 book” for nearly 20 years, and treat ALL other reading sources as OPTIONAL :-)



    June 13, 2010 at 00:44

  3. Just on the books, I have a rule that a book must engage me properly by page 40 or it gets put aside. I apply it a few times per month. It rarely happens with technical books that are on-topic for my work because I have usually been able to verify their value before buying them. Even if I have access to a free electronic copy of a book, I will always buy the paper version because that’s the way I read best. (That may be because I’m from the pre-computer generation.)

    Greg Black

    June 13, 2010 at 04:25

  4. A couple months ago I unsubscribed from planet ubuntu proper and just subscribed to the last 30 or so interesting bloggers. (Congrats on making the list, btw).

    I’ve gone back and forth from subscribing to slashdot/phoronix and fmylife just for fun.

    For reading news I use news.google.com

    Books, I just read Contact for the first time, and that has somewhat started me on wanting to read more.


    June 13, 2010 at 06:53

  5. Hi Matt,

    For me it’s a strategy of eliminating all the useless stuff first (not just reading material). Then back-filling whatever time remains with high quality info.

    Printed “news” (e.g. newspapers, news magazines) is completely out.

    Distractions like broadcast TV, sitcoms, tv news, tv sports are completely out.

    I have a few authors and sites that I read regularly online. planet.ubuntu, slashdot, boingboing, some RSS feeds, a few of the ubuntu lists. I use sites like amazon to check for new releases of high quality books to round out the rest of my reading habit.



    June 13, 2010 at 16:33

  6. Great post, Matt. I started responding here, and started rambling, so I posted a response here:


    Thanks for the stimulating conversation.


    Dustin Kirkland

    June 14, 2010 at 02:27

  7. Like you I find it more and more painful to track mailing lists.

    What I really miss is an email client which is capable of watching email threads: I don’t care about how many unread messages I have in mailing list folders, I would love to be able to mark a thread as interesting while scanning the headers, and then get a notification when answers to this thread are posted. The unread count could then also be replaced with a “count of unread messages in watched threads”.

    Is there such a mail client around? I would switch on sight.

    Aurélien Gâteau

    June 14, 2010 at 08:10

  8. This reminds me somewhat of how I had been for a few years, though I did (and do) regularly check news.google.com and listen to NPR.

    I found that I missed depth, thoughtfulness, and even the engagement of books. I had thought that I wouldn’t have time for them, and instead subscribed to some magazines that had some of what I was after: The Economist, New Yorker, and Atlantic. But eventually what really turned me around was getting a Kindle. I realized that the impediment to reading more books had been more convenience than anything. Being able to carry my library with me and read anywhere has ushered in a change. I read more, watch less TV, and read fewer blogs.

    I’ve enjoyed reading some things that I’ve never done before, such as ancient Greek works (Odyssey and Iliad) or the huge Wheel of Time series. That’s an experience that just can’t compare to blogs or anything shorter — and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think the 40-page test proposed above is ill-advised; is the only measure of a book how quickly it engages? Or should we also count how much it inspires, how well it enlightens, how accurately it informs, how well it tells a story? I’ll say that some WoT books certainly have their dry spells, but on the whole the series is great and I don’t regret reading it.

    John Goerzen

    June 15, 2010 at 00:16

  9. I bumped onto this great post some time after writing about what I spend time on when online: http://tshepang.tumblr.com/post/1618949323.

    Tshepang Lekhonkhobe

    December 2, 2010 at 23:57

  10. […] written previously about my reading habits, online and offline, and the patterns I extrapolate to content consumption in general. I’ve been talking […]

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