As I get older, sicker, and more beset with claims on my attention, I find myself dreaming up simple rules for gracefully consuming my way through the world. As a person reliant on deeply industrialized and entangled societies for money, food, medicine and entertainment, I find that simple tricks help me feel sane. Heuristics are useful when navigating complex systems, be it 21st century America or your personal ethics.
The following rules of thumb might help if you feel overwhelmed with the incomprehensible amount of interesting culture to eat and be eaten by. Because books are the media that I chase and covet the most, I’ll use them here. Altering the immortal words of Gale: “So many books, so little time.”
1. When in doubt, don’t read it.
Err on the side of omission. You might die tomorrow—hell, you might die tonight—and wouldn’t you regret it if you slogged through fifty more pages of some book that just feels serviceable?
2. If the author’s a bigot, don’t read it.
This applies to Mein Kampf all the way down to that writer that said “I just can’t fuck any more NYU students with Jim Morrison posters on their wall.” With so much potentially transcendent literature written by not-immediately-obvious-assholes just waiting in libraries and in book stores, feel free to judge with severe intolerance.
3. If it’s new, don’t read it.
Like evolution, time is a critic without aim, but there’s a lot of literature that has been retold, copied, salvaged and painfully rebuilt because it’s wildly powerful or innovative to most people that engage it. The newer the book you’re reading, the more likely it’ll be buried by the sands of time.* Lately, I’ve been reading mostly ancient literature and looming works from a few centuries ago, and I’m having trouble returning to contemporary stuff. But this difficulty feels nice.
4. If it’s news, don’t read it.
The really important stuff will become hard to avoid, anyway, so no need to bury yourself in the miasma of information that’ll soon be the noise of history.
5. If it’s billed as “theory”, don’t read it.
Like all of these loose rules, there are so many exceptions. But a lot of works of theory that I’ve read exist solely up their own assholes, which would be fine if they felt fun or stimulating. But so much theory—so much of everything, according to Sturgeon’s Law—is a waste of time if you’re looking for empiricism or induction or beauty or simple, practical philosophy. In the day and age of fat-tailed distribution, I’d go one further on Sturgeon and say that 99% of everything is crap. Some days this idea feels liberating, some days it’s doom.
6. If it’s described as a “meditation on memory and loss”, or something similar, don’t read it.
7. If it’s mostly well-reviewed, don’t read it.
If most people think it’s pretty good, that means it’s forgettable. I find myself rereading the books that are loved by a small group of people and hated—or dismissed—by everyone else. Don’t know why, but again: it feels right. Plus it gives me something to push against.
8. If you’re fifty pages in and you’re bored, don’t read it.
Books can be put down, sold back, given away. It feels great to relieve your attention of a bit of its future bondage.
And now the big and obvious additives:
A. If your friend wrote it, read it.
A recurring anxiety: I die before I’ve read my friends’ books, before telling them how great they are, before thanking them.
B. If you can’t help yourself, read it.
Curiosity is the slave driver.
These rules have helped me feel less overwhelmed and wasteful, but like any codified principles, please dismiss them at whim.
Watch out for paper cuts, and good luck.
* Please use this as an excuse to not read my books, if you’re looking for one.