Instapaper and My Ideal Intellectual State

I am becoming one of those bloggers who posts on their blog specifically to say they’re not blogging. (Evidence: see the opening of my last post.)

I’ve taken on a second job so I’ve been busier than usual, and I have significantly less time to scroll through my Twitter feed, to read delicious morsels of information, and to share these links. And yes, I’ve talked about this race before—the need to read and know, and to know first—but after several weeks of a new schedule, I’m far behind, choking on all of your dust.

The FOMO freak in me has accepted this.

At first, I placed all of my faith in Instapaper to keep me afloat. The process, as it had been, was to sift through tweets in bed before getting up in the morning, scroll through a day’s worth of tweets, and save a half-dozen to a dozen links to read later. After a few weeks, I realized I’d repeated this process each day, but kept missing the final and crucial step: the actual opening up of Instapaper and reading the links I had saved.

Read Later. I’m unsure what this means now. It’s become less of an action, and now some kind of blessed, magical place. An ideal state far in the horizon, to where I put stories and ideas and information for me to consume and synthesize to make myself a better, more informed person.

But I haven’t opened up Instapaper in weeks. I’m scared to look—to open that page, to see the accumulation of links, to scroll down and down and down in a never-ending list.

Weeks-old ideas! Stories that have become stale! So many more missed opportunities to think and write and be part of something!

And then another week passes, and the list gets even longer. I notice that what I do—check in on Twitter, save an interesting link here and there—is an automatic, effortless gesture. What am I collecting? The mere possibility of something, of a story, of an idea I can turn into something of my own? Or am I compiling what will surely become residue of my Twitter experience?

Perhaps Instapaper is just another space, like my favorites on Twitter, on which I’m shaping my ideal self—whatever that may be.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

27 thoughts on “Instapaper and My Ideal Intellectual State

  1. I found your blog through the recommended feed, and I have to say I will be back! I like your style and any fellow San Franciscan gets a leg up in my book.

  2. Ever since, I read that post of yours, “On Everything and Nothing & Reading and Not Writing”, I have trimmed down my Twitter following from 500 to less than 200. Those friends that tweet nothing useful? I unfollowed. People like you, I started following and later also your husband, just because you guys share some interesting posts/links. It made me think of quality over quantity. My timeline is a bit “quieter” and so is my head. (Funny that, but it does make a difference).

    I got busier and started sporadically saving links from all these quality Tweets I follow – only to never get around to read them all . Then I thought, oh well, I don’t *have* to read them all. I can save them, skim read them, and if I don’t like some of them, just delete. (Or in Nick’s word – “Nuke” them!) I have treated my Pocket app (the Instapaper equivalent) a bit like a magazine which I flip through, and pick up later when I have time to read all the articles. They are useful like that, especially for when I am stuck in Jakarta’s traffic. 🙂

    I do like having all the links stored in Pocket, for just in case I have time. And I do try to read through them, because some of them trigger new ideas for stories in my head (which I do need to pour on to my somewhat neglected blog. Ugh). But if I don’t get to read them all, I try not to stress about it (try being the operative word). Life still goes on.

    It’s always lovely to read your post, Cheri!

    1. Oh, I’m so glad that others have commented here on their similar experiences. I like this: “My timeline is a bit “quieter” and so is my head.” I hear that!

      And yeah, I need to loosen up and not stress about it so much. I think each of us has our own little things that bother us, you know? The ever-present, bloated idea queue is mine.

      Thanks for visiting 🙂

  3. Irony of ironies, I pulled this off my Instapaper… after I’ve spent a month wondering whether I should just purge my Google Reader and start over. That “mark all as read” button is fairly tempting, isn’t it? I find there are two tiers to my FOMO when it comes to the digital to-read lists… I do not mind missing out on the big pieces. On the news analysis or the Atlantic or Granta or anything else I’d love to read under normal circumstances — under the kinds of circumstances that would allow me to feel caught up and connected to the world. But I do seriously mind missing pieces like this, or blog posts, or life updates related to people I care about (even if I have never met them in real life). I know that the big pieces can wait and that I’ll eventually catch up with “Why Women Can’t Have It All”, even if my response to it is not timely or in the thick of all the other commentary. The life updates, though, and the posts about transitions and travel and new homes and new loves and old loves getting married and all that… They almost feel like they expire if you get to them too late, if you Instapaper them for a time when you’re more ready. So I still “star” and “favorite” and “bookmark” and “save for later”, but with the knowledge that the longer the list gets, the less grounded I feel in my digital universe. And then I realize what a privileged and silly thought that is at once: As though it’s not enough to feel ungrounded in my “real world” and “daily life”, there is a “digital universe” to make us feel ungrounded too?

    1. “I know that the big pieces can wait…” << Yes, I feel the same. I've missed numerous recent big cover stories at the Atlantic, Newsweek, etc. The funny thing is that when everyone chatters about a particular piece-du-jour, I get the gist of it and ultimately feel I don't *need* to read it. The discussion on Twitter suffices. I mean, I've stripped away the actual reading experience — the connection between me and the writer — but for those kinds of pieces I'm not reading for that more intimate reading connection — I'm reading for information.

  4. “Read Later. I’m unsure what this means now. It’s become less of an action, and now some kind of blessed, magical place. An ideal state far in the horizon, to where I put stories and ideas and information for me to consume and synthesize to make myself a better, more informed person.”

    Cheri, sometimes I feel like you’re reading my mind from San Francisco and then expressing what I’m feeling much better than I ever could myself.

    While I was reading this, I suddenly remembered an analogous experience I had a few years ago. In an effort to – I don’t know what, to spend less time in the pub? educate ourselves? – my boyfriend and I signed up to Netflix (or whatever the UK equivalent was at the time). We duly filled our queue with worthy films we thought we *should* have seen – films that the “better, more informed” versions of ourselves would be able to discuss. For a few weeks, it was thrilling: documentaries and obscure black and white dramas kept popping through the letterbox, and we were that much closer to our ideal intellectual states. Except we never actually watched the films. I’d open the packaging, sigh, repackage the disc, send it back. Every time.

    I don’t think Instapaper is exactly the same – I probably will, someday, get around to reading at least a few of the hundreds of articles currently inhabiting the promising space of “read later”. And there’s the added pressure of timeliness – so many of the things I save are only “relevant” for a week or a month; not long enough for me to read and get my head round them, let alone to use them to create something of my own. (Though I guess what I really need to do is redefine “relevance”…) But the feeling I have about Instapaper certainly reminds me, at least a little, of the feeling I had about that Netflix queue.

    1. How funny — last night, I read a blog post about someone breaking up with their Netflix queue (I’d link to it here but can’t locate it at the moment…). And when I read it, it reminded me of this Instapaper post. I was never pulled in by Netflix — by the excitement of those little red envelope sleeves — but I can totally see how this would be similar.

      Really glad you could relate to this!

  5. I’m with Nick – it’s a great way to file things for a time when you know you can concentrate on them, even if it’s months away. And yep, I have a processing problem too. My Evernote has 309 articles right now. It did have 360 a week ago, but I’m trying to get through 10 a day. I was questioning the sanity of that…but then I found this – – and a few other unmissable pieces that I *definitely* would have missed if I’d not filed them for later reading.

    It feels like a pile of books my my bedside, applying pressure to me, saying “you’re behind, you’re supposed to read this stuff, this is your JOB, why are you playing Skyrim instead?”. Evernote/Klip.Me kicks my ass.

    But I felt exactly the same way, Cheri. And part of me still does. I devote a lot of time to such things – the pressure of “keeping up” is maddening. But it’s also open to being selective, and this is the only reason I haven’t given up on it. I use Prismatic to narrow down onto things I’m interested in (mainly writing, storytelling, publishing, travel, space/scifi) and as much as it’s dictating to me what I should be reading, it’s also saving me enough time to feel like my freelancing isn’t going to hell as a result.

    Another thing I’ve started doing is getting selective at what I save as well as what I read (and agreeing with Nick again, the act of saving something for later shouldn’t mean a commitment to reading it later. I’m getting pickier and pickier as I go, which I’m uneasy about as the whole point of doing it is to read widely and unusually. Well, when I hit zero again I’ll retrieve my good intentions, dammit).

    And your final point is a good one. My reading is sharpening my interests and making me more fluently read around them. I really like that. I feel like I’m at University again – snowed under with required reading, but pushed up against the limits of what I can absorb and making who I’m becoming a little more exciting, eclectic and driven.

    I don’t mind having my ass kicked by an app. Bring it on.

    1. Yes, you and the others here are right — I shouldn’t feel committed to reading anything later. Perhaps I should view my arsenal of ideas as simply a place I can go to jumpstart the creative process. Because really, this should be *fun*, not terrifying. Right?

      Nick introduced me to Evernote, which scared me at first, but it has been super helpful for the work I’m doing — I haven’t even used the tags, really, but I know when I start searching for stuff within it I’ll find it useful.

      So glad to see you here again. I’ve missed you.

      1. The very, *very* worst thing about shifting to doing this writing lark fulltime and trying to turn it into a profitable biz is that it’s stopped me commenting on other blogs. It hasn’t stopped me reading. But I’m always reading on the way to something else, or on the bus, or while walking the dogs. 🙂 I’ve been lurking a fair bit. And I haven’t been happy about it. But I’m doing my best to be changing that right now. (Known as the “I CAN CHANGE! JUST GIVE ME A CHANCE” argument).

        Agreed, it shouldn’t be terrifying. But also…I’m feeling it shouldn’t just be fun too. Something puritanical in me likes the idea of a little pressure to keep up. As long as it’s not actually stressful. I like that my reading queue is pushing at me a bit. So feeling fully non-committed to reading? I’m not sure I’d go that far. 😉

        1. You have dogs? I hope you take the mogwai on walks, too.

          You were always a lurker. Nothing new about that.

          +1 on our reading queues putting gentle pressure on us.

          That sentence above sounds kinky in the most intellectual way possible.

    2. I’m the opposite, Mike–I’m not at all discriminatory in what I bookmark…if it’s shiny I’ll ‘ave it…but I AM discriminatory (though probably still nowhere near enough!) in what I choose to read and I regularly go through my reading lists and have no problem nuking stuff.

      (Incidentally, I don’t use evernote to save articles to read later, it’s two clicks too fiddly for that, but I do use it to save articles that I want to keep forever and ever amen.)

      My question, though, and I really do think this is the crux of this whole debate, is how would your life be any different if you had missed the tsunami article? (Which, againcidentally, I didn’t particularly like–found it hard to get into, the overly stylized and to-my-mind try-hard & confused opening irked me, but that’s by the by.) A little less rich, perhaps, but I’d even question that–as long as you are selective in what you do choose to read, whatever time you devote to reading will still nourish you. I guess if the reading is part of a learning process, rather than pleasurable experience accretion, this might not hold true.

      1. “Nuking” is a satisfying word to use when decluttering. You just reminded me of that. From now on, my nuclear safeties are off. This week I’m nuking my Inbox back to the year zero.

        >>”how would your life be any different if you had missed the tsunami article?”

        3 ways, I reckon…

        1) I enjoyed it immensely, for the reasons you cited – heavily stylized, really pushing the limits of literary non-fiction – I’ve never read anything that so baldly using fictional techniques to construct a piece of….was it true journalism? I think so, and yet it was so very fiction-like. But that’s Michael Paterniti – he takes risks and writes in unusual ways (see his “The Suicide Catcher” – he’s a main character, talking about his role in putting together the story, really interesting and unconventional).

        2) I’m speaking at TBU Porto, partly about how storytelling techniques can be used for non-fictional purposes, and since that’s the most extreme form of literary journalism I’ve seen, I reckon I’ll mention it. I’m sure some people will later read it and dispute it’s even journalism. That would be fun. 🙂 Sounds like a good argument to be had.

        3) it bloody terrified me in places. The idea of having that moment where he could have jumped free, and then suddenly the waters drew back and that moment and that lifeline were gone…chilling. Nothing quite like the fear of not knowing if you will hesitate at a life-or-death moment where hesitation could mean the loss of everything you value. Do those moments exist outside of fiction, or….whatever this piece is? I don’t know. But the thought is deeply frightening to me, for some reason. (One for my shrink, when I can afford one).

        All those things made that piece unmissable. But then I’m sure there are hundreds of similar articles out there that I’d find unmissable – maybe some I missed because I was reading that one. It’s impossible to keep up with the best writing these days. But I do feel grateful I read that piece instead of skipping it…

  6. Oh, no. Something new to pile up and accumulate…Should go well with my old magazines, books, various readers, blank journals…

    1. Indeed, Alice. (And I hear you about piles of blank journals — funny how I’ve got a few of them that I refuse to write in. Maybe they’re just too pretty…)

  7. I love Instapaper. When I have a few minutes, I start with the oldest article, and if I want to read it at that time, I do. If I don’t want to read it, I figure I never will and delete the link. Repeat until free time is up.

    Thing is, Instapaper isn’t really a to-do list. It’s a this-might-be-interesting list. There’s no commitment to actually read any of it.

    1. Thing is, Instapaper isn’t really a to-do list. It’s a this-might-be-interesting list. Oh, you are so right. After reading this and Mike’s comment, I realize I need to loosen up! Instapaper should be helpful, if anything. Not a black hole of stuff I fear I’ll never read…

  8. I actually quite like the idea of Instapaper-as-residue. And you can organise it too, which will make it easier to come back to things later, when you do have the time. Of course, they may not be as ‘fresh’ as you’d like, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing provided the topic is still relevant in some way (and I’m sure it will be).

    On the other hand (and this might sound flippant, but I assure you I’m being sincere!) you could just delete some of the items from Instapaper, unread. Unopened, even! It’s a kind of digital expression of the Buddhist notion of non-attachment, an acknowledgement that you can’t read everything, and that you don’t need to read everything. That in the online plankton of juicy morsels floating around the internets, you will always find something to sustain you when you need to. And that, really, is the point, isn’t it?

    1. It’s a kind of digital expression of the Buddhist notion of non-attachment, an acknowledgement that you can’t read everything, and that you don’t need to read everything. I love this.

      “Organizing residue” sounds funny, but I get it. Oftentimes, it’s the stuff that lingers — those ideas with staying power — that eventually prompt me to write about something later.

      1. As a Buddhist thank you for giving me the words to explain my using instapaper, I am interested but not attached to these articles. I also peruse the residue when I have bloggers block, much the same as I do with the Daily Post on WordPress, something will trigger an idea.

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