Ben Greenman: What I Read

Author and New Yorker editor Ben Greenman recently faced a slight Twitter addiction problem, has "dozens of secret sources," and tries "like hell to read normal books." 

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How do people deal with the torrent of information pouring down on us all? What sources can't they live without? We regularly reach out to prominent figures in media, entertainment, politics, the arts, and the literary world to hear their answers. This is drawn from an email exchange with Ben Greenman, New Yorker editor and author of the upcoming novel, The Slippage, among other books.

I think probably first I pick up the phone, to make sure that no one has called me overnight. That's how the bad calls would come, right? Overnight? Tragedy doesn't respect any schedule. It says so right on its business card. Then I wander out and check email and read some headlines on Google News. Then I close all browsers and try to write. For a while I was experimenting with not even looking at headlines before I started to write, but I found that there was a pressure in my head that I eventually diagnosed, possibly correctly, as curiosity. If a meteor was heading toward the earth, I'd want to know. If Kevin Durant scored 50, I'd want to know. These days, so much of media is about discharging static electricity: getting rid of the energy that I don't want so that I can get on with my business.

Most days I listen to music on my way to work. If I'm feeling especially tired, I might switch over to podcasts. "How Did This Get Made?" is good. "60-Second Mind" is good. Podcasts are a good way to get information, but they clog up my head, and my main goal on that commute is to let the two hours of morning writing recede and let the set of work questions come to the fore. Music without words is better: Bill Frisell or Miles Davis or even music with words that is old enough that the words seem like part of the landscape. Mississippi John Hurt works well. When I get to work, I check work email and then open up browser tabs: mostly it's work email and various work workspaces, though I often keep at least one news site open. Which one that is follows a cycle. Usually it's Google News, because searching is easy if I need to check something, though sometimes I get tired of that and I switch over to Newsmap, which is an interface I like quite a bit and wish I liked a little bit better.

I probably look at Google News hourly. It's usually open, and I refresh it to see which headlines are rising to the top. It's hard to miss a major story. Sometimes I look into the Entertainment tab to see if there's something (an album, a book) that has broken into the mainstream that I might not know about. But that only helps me in the sense that it minimizes the chance I'll miss something major. It doesn't solve the other problem, which is helping me to find things that other people don't know about. For that, I have dozens of secret sources: sites whose authors or curators have an especially good eye for trends, or novelties, or novelties that will soon be trends. I like reading Weird Asia News—their entirely accurate slogan is "Weird New from all over Asia." I also like Furniture Today. I love the idea that there's important furniture news every single day. Alert! There are still chairs! And I spend about 15 minutes each day going to various sites that recover news from exactly 100 years ago: there are a few Twitter accounts that do it (like @CenturyAgoToday) and a few local newspapers, or you could just check Wikipedia for the day and see if anything pops for 1913. I feel like it's an important exercise, if only to remind myself that most news is novelty: everything has happened before, even the things that haven't.

I use Twitter. I used to not use it at all. Then my publisher, Harper Collins, recommended that I get on it for What He's Poised To Do, a collection of short stories I published in 2010. I used it sparingly and then less sparingly, to the point where I started to use it too much. I think it functions like a drug, and I had a slight addiction problem. It started to creep into the workday. I started to make jokes at lunch but then maybe one or two in the afternoon, and then maybe more than two. I had a theory, which I think isn't completely invalid, and this was my theory: that Twitter helped to burn off energy that would otherwise be a distraction and an interference. In other words, say that I had a political joke I needed to make about Paul Ryan or Harry Reid or Sarah Palin. Better to make it right then and there than leave the joke sit in my brain, occupying valuable space. (I should put "valuable" in quotes.) The problem, of course, is that Twitter has an echo-chamber effect, where you don't just broadcast your little joke but you then check to see if other people are retweeting it or responding to it. Sometimes earlier this year, I realized—and others helped me to realize—that maybe I was expending too much energy on Twitter. I pulled back. It's a little strange, because I have a book coming out, and there are people who have suggested that I should be using it even more aggressively, but the fact is that I'm not comfortable with it. Or rather, I am not comfortable with how comfortable I can be with it.

Facebook, I don't really use. It bothers me that there's a parallel email system. When people write me on there, I usually tell them to send me a message at my normal email. I'm sure there are other forms of media, but I don't understand them. I am a skeptic, often, until it is too late, like with Vine. What's Vine? Little movies about things that don't interest me? I'm not sure why that's useful for me.

I try like hell to read normal books, since I am at least partly in the business of creating them. I try like hell not to fall from the computer screen into the TV screen. Some days I succeed. I recently spent time with a relative who had no cable. He had an antenna. That is a device from the past that plucks signals from the sky. As a result, he only gets four or five TV channels. His house was like a chapel. If there was something good on, I might watch it, but if there wasn't, the TV went off. There wasn't an hour-long process of arranging DVR selections, or scanning various streaming services to determine that in the end they do not interest me. And when I had less TV, I read more. I think that's a pretty transparent dynamic. And it wasn't just that I read more, but that I felt myself moving deeper into what I was reading. It wasn't just a race to get through it so that I could get back to screenland. It let me grapple with the books, like them more (or less, but less in an engaged and gratifying way). It returned me to how things used to be, back in the '90s and before. And though I am not a Luddite, though I am happy to try any stupid device or platform, I often know that the various new ways of cramming information into my gullet are not good for me or for anyone else.

I want to make a case for talk radio. When I grew up, it was often in the background as I tried to sleep. I tuned it in and tuned it out, and so it was either an ambient drone or a way for me to learn about sports or politics or finance. That's one of the best things about the iPhone and the bluetooth alarm clock that I have connected to it: it brings talk radio back to me. Voices come in from empty space, and they are talking about a baseball game, or about President Obama, or about how it's not a good idea to buy a used car because cars don't depreciate as quickly as they once did. If I can't sleep I'll listen to anything.

The last piece of media I look at before bed? Sometimes it's a page of a book that falls from my hands as I fall asleep. Sometimes it's a radio show that's playing. Sometimes it's naked people performing unspeakable acts. Sometimes it's email. My preference is that it be one of the big books that I don't really understand, and that I move through over and over again over the course of my life: the Bible, the Quixote, Bleak House. I have read them, but I want to understand them better, and I would like it if I was able to carve out 15 or 20 minutes to look at one of those before bedtime, because that would increase the chance that those works (and the questions they ask, and the way they frame answers) are on my mind as I sleep. That seems more nutritious than a news story about Justin Bieber's pet monkey being seized by German authorities, which is one of the risks you take when you expose yourself to online news.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.