Read something good this week, for everyone’s sake

Join my 2018 Ditch the Drivel Challenge

At the start of this year, I had silently hoped to read less drivel – fewer poorly written articles, pointless social media posts and dreadful books. My hopes were dashed, I’ve managed to subject myself to all of these things and more. So for the rest of the year I’m taking a stand: I refuse to read any more crap. Who’s with me?

The enthusiastic babbling of my toddler roused me from a deep sleep yesterday morning, interrupting a rather curious dream in which I was watching him play charades in front of a crowd of rowdy socialist voters in The Hague. I recoiled at the bluish light coming from my phone when I checked the time. 06:52. Pretty good going.

I went to put my phone back on my nightstand, but something stopped me; my thumb hovered over the unlock button, springing it into life. Without thinking, I scrolled to the second page of apps and touched the big blue F.

Oh look, someone’s posted an inspirational, motivational, follow-these-rules-and-you’ll-win-at-life article on a group I’m in. I read it. It was a pretty poor rehash of a million other versions I’d read in that group and plenty of others before, but it was so familiar and so easy to scan that my brain hardly had to wake up to feel some sense of achievement, albeit empty.

Those three minutes spent on my phone felt productive – I was developing myself, after all – but in the cold light of day, I realize it was a giant waste of time. It’s not only a problem for me, either; I fed the monster by reading that article. I validated the drivel by scanning it, so whoever published it gets a tick and a thumbs-up to produce more of the same. This puts me – and all of us, actually – in a terrible cycle: people publish rubbish, we consume it, they publish more, we lose the ability to make judgment calls on quality, so we keep clicking…

This content is ubiquitous online. It’s splashed across websites, it fills blogs and it comes at us through hyperlinked promises in marketing emails. Everyone has something to say, everyone’s an expert and everyone’s a writer. Only they’re not all good at it. The articles and blog posts and books aren’t all valuable, or even true. We’re feeding our brains the literary equivalent of a soggy quarter pounder meal every chance we get – with a side order of nuggets and enough cheap sauce to drown in.

It’s time for me – all of us – to do something about this. We must start demanding quality when we decide whether something’s worth our time. Welcome to my 2018 Ditch the Drivel Challenge.

Information overload is killing our quality radar

It’s hardly news that we’re overloaded with information. We all complain about it, often on social media, giving each other even more information to deal with. Information expert Dr. Martin Hilbert published a study showing that we were bombarded with the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of information every day in 2007. And that was more than a decade ago – just imagine what we’re facing now.

A lot of that information hits us through apps like the big blue F that stole my attention yesterday morning. Facebook and its affiliated apps, like Instagram and WhatsApp, are reported to hold our attention for 50 minutes a day. Add to that a whole host of other social networks, like Twitter, Pinterest, FourSquare, Reddit and so on, and we’re now spending on average 135 minutes a day looking at what other people are doing, saying and writing.

Think about that for a moment. 135 minutes. That’s 2 hours and 15 minutes. Long enough to run a half marathon, drive over 200 kilometres or watch the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s IT (which is only slightly scarier than some of these statistics, even for someone who’s terrified of clowns).

The problem is, in the depths of our information overload, we lose the ability to see what’s good. The strength and focus we need to wade through the relentless attack of links and status updates and motivational quotes overlaid onto whimsical images and automatically-playing videos with mistake-ridden subtitles wanes the more they’re piled on to us. That inability is carried over to other areas too, and before we know it we’re reading Fifty Shades of Grey and the Daily Mail.

A new reality emerges – one in which a listicle of the top 17 things you never knew about the Royal family’s baby-related traditions, with commentary from a writer you’ve never heard of, who is altogether too lax when it comes to typos, seems like engaging content. It’s a world in which a headline swallows you up and spits you into a sales funnel, and you’re powerless to do anything about it by the time you hit the first catch. It’s a world in which good writing has given way to ‘engaging content’, where it’s hard to tell whether you’re being informed, entertained, manipulated or sold to.

It’s a world I’m checking out of.

Ditching the drivel

When I woke up this morning, I ignored my phone, picking up one of the books from my nightstand instead. Bird by Bird, written by the altogether brilliant Anne Lamott. I’ve just finished reading Operating Instructions, a frank, insightful and heart-rending journal of the first year of her son’s life, and I’m now an addict in the very best way. Reading her books inspires me, touches me and teaches me, and I intend to make sure I read a lot more things that do that.

For the rest of this year, I’m challenging myself to read something good every day – and I’m challenging you to join me. I’m not going to kid myself that it’s possible to completely give up the drivel, but I’m going to ask myself a few questions before I read anything from now on. Here’s my very own literary sewage filter: Will this help me? Is this good? Will I be somehow better after reading it?

I want to make sure that each time I pick up a book or click on a link it’s to read something fulfilling. Something beautiful. Something good. I want to look up to the people who have written the words I’m reading, take notes from them and become a better writer myself as a result.

I challenge you to set up your own literary sewage filter. And who knows? If we stop being baited to click and say no to the dregs, maybe, just maybe, we’ll avoid the overload, get better at spotting – and choosing – quality and actually help lift the stuff we’re subjected to out of the gutter.

I’m off to read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. What’s next on your list?

(Want some ideas for great books? Check out Joe Queenan’s One for the Books for a fascinating journey through an avid reader’s memory, or The Novel Cure for ideas of books that will match your mood.)

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