Read to Discover

Devir Kahan has a nice post on reading outside your bubble, wherein he shares a conversation with a teacher who feels curating what we read is problematic:

He said that reading things solely online - and curating what you read through things like RSS - is an even bigger problem. If we are only reading things that interest us, we'll never find anything new. We'll never try something a little bit outside of our comfort zone, and we'll never grow as humans.

I definitely see his point, but like Devir, it makes me feel a little self-conscious because I enjoy reading things online. In fact, browsing my RSS reader is one of my favorite things to do on my iPhone or iPad.

I also agree with Devir in that I feel I've grown a lot via the articles I read online. If I had never gotten hooked on reading the web, I might never have discovered minimalism, the Apple community, the Paleo lifestyle, or any of the other things I'm passionate about today.

That's why I feel it's important to differentiate between merely "reading the news" and "reading online". For me, "reading the news" refers to the headlines and events of the day. Whether that comes from CNN or Engadget, it's primarily informational and (hopefully) fact-based. You could say it's the who, what, when, and where: the essence of reporting.

This basic reporting is different from opinion pieces and editorials about the news. John Gruber discussed this distinction with Josh Topolsky on On The Verge last week:

The thing I always wanted to do is, in newspaper parlance or magazine parlance, is I don't want to be a reporter, I wanted to be the columnist. I wanted to be the guy on the back page. I wanted to be the guy on the ed-op page who just gets to say what he thinks.

What distinguishes Gruber — and what makes me prefer Daring Fireball to a news aggregate like Engadget — is that he tells me what happened, but he also tells me what it means and what he thinks about it. It's the "how" and "why", which I feel is more valuable and more interesting. This is not to say I prefer to be told what to think, but rather that I enjoy hearing others' opinions on topics that interest me. It humanizes what would otherwise be a list of facts.

(Coincidentally, there's been quite a bit of fervor over opinions in the news lately. See: MG Siegler and Ben Brooks.)

This distinction comes down to reading headlines versus reading writers. That is, I prefer to read Gruber rather than Engadget, Gizmodo, TechCrunch, et al. because I feel he offers more depth than a typical reporter. Most of the online reading that I do, therefore, is not "reading the news", but reading my favorite writers. I don't follow CNN, I follow Merlin Mann, Shawn Blanc, and Michael Lopp because these are the writers that offer valuable articles on topics I enjoy. Rather than an endless regurgitation of headlines, these writers expose me to new ways of thinking: their own. That's why I choose to follow human beings.

That brings us to this quote by Tim Van Damme, which Devir cites:

Living inside a comfort zone is dangerous, and turns you into an uninteresting human being fed by other people’s opinions. Broaden the topics of things you read and learn how to have your own opinion.

This is true, and it's good advice, but I don't think you should force yourself to read things you don't care about either. How many topics do we need to read about to avoid becoming "uninteresting"? I think a better strategy would be to seek out as many different opinions about our chosen topics as possible. I'd rather be knowledgeable and passionate about A, B, and C than knowledgeable and indifferent about A-Z. We do, however, need to be mindful and avoid the trap of accepting opinion as fact, which I've discussed several times before. It is the responsibility of the reader to evaluate an opinion before accepting it.

Devir concludes that there are three different types of reading, all of which are vital to our growth as human beings:

  1. "Technical writing". To me, this is reporting. While I wouldn't necessarily label this kind of reading as "dangerous", it can be dry, unimaginative, and do little to expand our horizons. That doesn't make it useless, however.
  2. "Books". I agree with Devir here. Books are timeless, fun, and have the potential to inspire. I use books as a means of escape. Reading a book is also different from reading online, which is why I own both an iPad and a Kindle.
  3. "Inspirational and insightful articles". For me, these are original pieces written by the authors mentioned above. Very different from just "covering the news" — and far more fulfilling.

The only tweak I would offer is that any piece of writing — not just articles — can be inspirational and insightful. An aspiring journalist might find a piece of technical writing very impressive, just as a budding author might be in awe of Dostoyevsky. We must also not discount verse, newspapers, magazines, or other ways to read. So, while there are innumerable mediums, any and all of them may be deemed inspirational and insightful by a particular individual. As I've said in defense of e-readers, it's the content that matters, not the medium in which it is presented.

I can see why some would argue that reading only technical writing is cause for concern, and it's certainly possible. In the end though, my conclusion is a cliché: variety is the spice of life. For those of us who live to read and learn, the solution should be wonderfully obvious. We shouldn't force ourselves to read stuff we don't care about, but by exposing ourselves to a greater variety of media, we increase our chances of discovering something new and delightful.