How I slowly read the internet

Now that I’ve misled you with that headline, I should clarify that I slowly read select snippets of content from the internet. As my wife has told our kids, “You can’t watch the whole internet!” and neither could I read the whole internet (obviously).

The system

I am constantly finding stuff I want read on the internet. Much of it is from blog posts or news articles, some is reference material that I want to save, books I want to find more about before deciding whether to add them to my reading list, things I’d like to buy but cannot afford, quotes, poems, the list seems to be endless. Rather than deciding for certain whether I will actually read any of this stuff up front, I simply save it into Evernote, my default tool for consolidating all this junk into one place. I use a paid account (currently the Plus tier at US$44 per year) which allows me to save up to 1GB of new stuff per month which is sufficient for my needs. There is a free version but I always exceed the maximum amount you can save on that.

Evernote has a tool called the ‘web clipper’ which copies a web page and saves it to my list of notes. The way I typically use this is to save the ‘simplified article’ version which effectively grabs the text, some images (not always all of them, this can be annoying) but minimal formatting and usually it leaves comments and advertisements out. As part of this saved file the original web address is included, an essential factor in how I finally use these notes.

So I end up with a huge folder in Evernote which I call my ‘inbox’. This contains everything I’ve saved but not sorted into other folders (Evernote calls them notebooks). Aside from a few specific notebooks such as one I call my ‘wish list’ (for all those things I’d like but can’t afford) and ‘to watch’ (for videos I can’t legitimately watch on my work computer!) I just work directly from my inbox which is sorted so that the most recently modified items are at the top of the list. This sort order is key to how my process works.

The reading

When I have time to do some reading I simply begin with whatever is at the top of the pile of notes, if that’s not appealing at the moment I scroll down until I find something that is. Then my weirdness kicks in… As I read a paragraph and move onto the next one I plonk the cursor at the end of the stuff I have read and keep a finger on the delete key. Visually this looks slightly odd on the screen as the stuff I have read is slowly deleted and what I’ve not yet read gradually moves up the screen. It seems daft, but I find that by doing this it is much easier to visually keep my place in what I’m reading and the slowness of the delete action causes me to slow down my reading and actually read it rather than scanning as I do on a normal web page. It also functions as a bookmark because what I’ve already read is deleted so I just pickup at the top of the remaining text. If I need to go back to stuff earlier in the article I still have a link to the original article.

Self-ordering

Because this is how I always use Evernote, my huge pile of 4244 notes (at exactly now, it will change throughout the day) is always sorted with what I most recently was reading at the top of the list. In most cases, what I want to look at first is likely to be the stuff in the top of this pile of notes so it’s reasonably easy to find. Other times I decide to let serendipity play a role and randomly scroll towards the bottom of my list to see what I saved a few years ago that is still in there. This can be a good way to find topic fodder for blog posts because it is a trove of interesting stuff that I’ve seen before, chosen to keep, but not done anything specific with it yet.

This is also where sorting of my notes tends to happen – once something has sat in my notebook for a while I’m in a better place to see whether it is worth reading or is a topic that is no longer of interest so can be safely thrown out. I find that such decisions are better made at leisure some time after the initial “Oh, I should read that,” moment has passed. It is an easy thing to clip stuff as I encounter it and then worry about sorting it later. (You may notice that this all works on the principle of the self-ordering heap, as I’ve written about previously.)

Slow

An inherent ‘limitation’ of this system is that the rate at which I read my notes is much slower than if I used something like Instapaper or Pocket, both of which I have used and are excellent ‘read-later’ apps. With those apps the rate at which I read is much faster, but there is a corresponding decrease in how much I remember. My Evernote approach is slower and clunky in comparison but the inefficiencies of reading slower, seeing the same article several times sitting on the top of my list and being sorted by last modified means that a sort of visual map is built in my mind of the topics I’ve been digging into recently and this can enable connections about stuff that is not topically related by is temporally related simply due to when I happened to see it in my list of notes.

Distracting gifs

Prompted by this annoying little gem

I know that many people love to use animated gifs in blog posts and web articles, but I find them extremely distracting. The ones that bother me are those which keep looping endlessly while I’m attempting to read a web page. The movement grabs my attention away from what I’m trying to read and frankly the image cheapens what is otherwise a good article. Just my opinion, and I do have ways around it.

More books and writing

Swapping blogs for books

In 2017 I did a lot of reading. Some of that was books, but a large amount was articles and blog posts on the internet. As a result of consuming an estimated 3,650 written articles from the web last year, I’ve come to the conclusion that my time could be better spent reading books instead.

Some of the reasons for this conclusion are:

  • Many blog posts end up repeating much the same information as others (especially anything about how to do something with WordPress).
  • Due to the shorter format of even a long web article, reading off the internet is wide but shallow. Good books enable a deeper exploration of a topic.
  •  Most web articles are not particularly well researched (there are exceptions and I love those).
  • Reading from a computer screen in the evening is detrimental to good sleep, something that is becoming more important to me as I get older.
  • I have a massive list of books I want to read!

Therefore, in 2018 one of my goals is to devote my evening reading time to books rather than web articles. In theory this should result in a jump in the number of books I read, and maybe even see me knock off some heavy duty tomes which I keep putting off diving into despite knowing that I will gain much from digesting them.

More writing

A sort-of related goal for this year is that I want to do much more writing. Last year I spent a lot of time tinkering around with websites. I consider this to have been valuable learning experience and don’t regret the time invested but have realised that I’m unlikely to become a full web developer and want to improve my writing skills in 2018 rather than continuing to focus on web development.

The obvious way to improve my writing is to write more, so expect to see much more published on this blog in 2018 than over the last few years. Not all of what I write will end up here (be glad for that), some will be junk, some will be purely practise and some won’t be stuff I want to publish on the internet.

I do see the potential hypocrisy in wanting to read less from blogs yet intending to publish more on my own blog. However, nobody is forcing you to read my blog and it hurts no-one for posts to sit here lonesome and unread. In the long run if my writing improves any lonely unread posts will have been worth the effort.

Fidgety prayers

fidgety-prayers

There was a time when I used to get up early each morning to spend time seeking God at the beginning of my day. That habit gradually faded as wife, children, work and the internet filled up my life.

These days it is generally easier for me to get time alone late in the evenings rather than in the mornings. Yet making constructive use of this time to seek God takes discipline to turn off the computer or TV, to put down my book and pick up the Bible. Just as it takes resolve and discipline to get out of bed early on a cold morning. My problem is not primarily one of having no time but lies in how I am choosing to use what time I’ve got.

I recall my bachelor days when I would get up and enjoy a cup of tea while reading the Bible and praying before getting ready for work. So in order to reactivate some dormant memory cells, last night I made a cup of tea and sat down to read and pray. My mind wandered, I fidgeted and walked around the room. But I was seeking God.

​Something which has encouraged me in my messy, inadequate pursuit of God is a quote I recently read from Henri Nouwen:

“WHY should I spend an hour in prayer when I do nothing during that time but think about people I am angry with, people who are angry with me, books I should read and books I should write, and thousands of other silly things that happen to grab my mind for a moment?

The answer is: because God is greater than my mind and my heart, and what is really happening in the house of prayer is not measurable in terms of human success and failure.

What I must do first of all is be faithful. If I believe that the first commandment is to love God with my whole heart, mind, and soul, then I should at least be able to spend one hour a day with nobody else but God. The question as to whether it is helpful, useful, practical, or fruitful is completely irrelevant, since the only reason to love is love itself. Everything else is secondary.

The remarkable thing, however, is that sitting in the presence of God for one hour each morning — day after day, week after week, month after month — in total confusion and with myriad distractions radically changes my life. God, who loves me so much that He sent His only son not to condemn me but to save me, does not leave me waiting in the dark too long.

I might think that each hour is useless, but after thirty or sixty or ninety such useless hours, I gradually realize that I was not as alone as I thought; a very small gentle voice has been speaking to me far beyond my noisy place.

So: Be confident and trust in the Lord.”

From The Road to Daybreak, by Henri Nouwen.​ (I read this here)

This is day 4 of my project.​

Other posts related to this topic:

Inspired by Aisling

fear-and-faith

My first blog (Words of Eternal Life) was born as a flow-on effect from a tragedy that deeply touched my heart in October 2009 when two-year-old Aisling Symes disappeared suddenly and despite extensive searches could not be found. As the search continued and fears for Aisling’s safety grew, a Facebook page was set up to offer support for the family. I had not previously used Facebook, but wanted to leave a message so signed up to the site.

Facebook confronted me with both a marvelous mechanism to connect with people and also a fantastic array of utterly trivial and quite pointless time wasters. I did notice, however, that some people were writing excellent articles and posting them on Facebook. Then I realized these were in fact blog feeds and this started me pondering whether I should confront the low-grade content on Facebook with something a bit more edifying to the soul than Farmville and the likes.

So little Aisling induced me to join Facebook, which then seeded the idea of starting a blog. What you are reading is the result, and being born out of the memory of Aisling it has a sober tone to it, an awareness of how precious life is and how essential faith in Christ is given that life can be so short. My prayers go out to Aisling’s parents and sister and I thank them for their own faith in Jesus which is also an inspiration and encouragement that Christ is sufficient for all we need.