This week I declutter my background reading

read it now
read it now

I can get disproportionately excited about new online devices. Like, a while back, I was frothing about Instapaper, a 2.0 equivalent of the Post It note.

It works like this. You’re wasting time online and stumble upon an interesting blog post or New York Times article. You can’t read it now; you’re meant to be finalising a spreadsheet or something. Printing it out is just wrong. After all, you have one of those Please Consider the Environment email signatures. And you offset your Virgin flights.  Perhaps you could email it to yourself and flag it.  But that seems way too clunky and cluttery.

What to do? Glad you asked. Once you’ve installed Instapaper (three easy online steps, or thereabouts), you simply click a “Read Later” button on your Bookmarks menu and your article is filed in a special folder in cyberspace. For perusal at a more languid juncture.

Is it just the Capricorn in me, or is that really nifty?

Well, I certainly used to think so. But this week I had a look in my special cyber folder and the sheer volume of tagged URLs sent me into a spiraling fug. It resembled the stack of books piled next to my bed that I’ve “been meaning to read”. And the folders of saved emails that-might-come-in-useful-down-the-track. And the basket next to my couch bulging with newspaper clippings and back issues of Vanity Fair with cornered pages, marking Christopher Hitchins essays I might need to refer back to one day.

And it suddenly occurred to me – my entire life is flagged-for-follow-up. I’m one big backlog of informative material waiting to be attended to. If only there were a rainy Sunday long enough to get through it all, I might finally … get on top of myself.

Regular readers of this column might be able to guess what comes next. Yes, a good, hard look at myself and my unhelpful habits. Followed by a burst of decluttering of things that no longer serve me.

I hang onto articles because I’m scared of what will happen if I need them one day, and they’re not there. This fear binds me to my stuff. Like many people, I buffer myself with my just-in-cases, instead of flying naked, instead of seeing what will happen if I head out into the clamber armed with just my inner-resourcefulness.

I’ve flown naked before. I hitchhiked through Greece when I was 18 with just the clothes on my back (so, not literally naked); I lived in Paris for a fortnight with no money, no passport, not a single possession to my name (I’d been robbed). Lately, I’ve been thinking I’d like to fly naked again.

I hate making sweeping generational generalizations, but it must be said that those Y kids can teach the rest of us a bit about flying naked. They don’t get excited about Instapaper. This is because they don’t hang onto things. They skim read at the time of receipt, delete and move on.

The under-30 crew were schooled during a time when you could look up references online in 2 seconds, instead of via the Duwey system when the librarian got back from lunch. They’re au fait with flying naked. Back when I was studying law, some time after the last ice age, if you lost a case note, you were stuffed. Little wonder we hang onto every scribble.

But, let me be the one to break it: times have changed. Information can be Googled or Binged (or is it Bunged?) instantly, emails retrieved from servers.  Further, ideas move around so fast. There’s no point hanging onto today’s idea because it’s bound to be RT’d or Digg’d (or is it Dugg’d) to death by tomorrow anyway.

My 20-something brother doesn’t save anything. Why would you, he says. That’s just looking backwards. Where’s the flow of information? Roll forward and gather no moss, is his adage.

I still love my Instapaper discovery. But what I loved more this week was going in to my special folder, selecting all and hitting delete. Then hauling my Vanity Fairs  and New Yorkers into the communal foyer of my apartment for the neighbours to take. Information shouldn’t be held on to; it should be passed on, like a hot potato. Information in, information out. Sweetly, it’s left more room in my life and my special folder for fresh ideas.

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