Information Overconsumption
our brains need to go on a diet

Author's Note: I want to make it clear that I'm talking about nonfictional sources of media. Things like self-help books, history, philosophy, wikis, etc. I didn't really account for fiction as I rarely read fictional stuff nowadays (see why), so it's not really included in this discussion. Just a heads up.

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There were certain points in time where I would read voraciously, constantly buying and reading books over and over. For example, in the month of January in 2019 I managed to read 9 different books. Not too shabby, considering that each of those books were at least 200 pages.

But here's the thing: I completely forgot most of what I had learned. Not everything was forgotten, but a large majority of the content of those books whizzed right over my head. And I realized one thing after all of this: that there's an inherent problem with overconsumption, even if it's something good such as knowledge.

Too... many... books!

I'm not a fan of tracking the amount of books that I've read. I used to obsess over such metrics, as when I was using Goodreads it would always track how many books I had read. You could set goals as for how many books you want to read for the year. Now, while that's all well and good, I personally believe that we're emphasizing the wrong things here.

Sure, it may be good for those who haven't read books in a long time and want to get back into it. It's possibly a decent motivator in that regard, but for me, the quantity of books that I had read never really amounted to anything, especially in the knowledge which I have retained to this day.

The thing with these metrics is that I've never seen them not constantly paraded about. And that seems like the only thing that's going for it. No longer is the emphasis about the books that one reads, but how many one has read, and I think that's not good, because there's a whole lot of junk out there, I'll be honest. I can flex on people about reading 500 books a year, but if all of it is junk, then exactly what value did I gain from all of this? Even if it wasn't all junk, exactly how much did I retain? I'm willing to bet around 20-30%, which is decent, but that's assuming I read 500 different books. And with the likelihood that all of these books weren't about the same things, the most I'll get is some dinky trivia knowledge, but that's it. There was never really a point where I delved deep enough into a topic that I could actually apply it to something of use.

Information Gluttony

Of course, people read books for different reasons. Some read to escape reality, some read to do research, and I understand that. In this case of information consumption, I'm mainly talking about nonfiction and recreational reading, and for some reason pop culture has made it out to be this sort of grandiose thing that reading as many books as possible is the end goal. I believe it's because that's the only real thing we can quantify. We can't quantify how much a book changed someone's life, or how much value a person extracted from such information, so we just settle for how many books they've read, which is just looking at the completely wrong thing. We've settled for a count of consumption, as opposed to seeing how well someone has digested something.

It's like food: if one just constantly consumes food, it all goes into fat, which while stored in our body, will not be used because one never actually has a balance of consuming and using said energy. To consume the most is not the endgame, else gluttony would be perceived as the greatest trait in a person, which it is definitely not. If we just repeatedly consume more and more information, then we'll never get around to putting that knowledge into some actual use.

I say all of this because out of all of the books I've read, only a handful really have impacted my day-to-day life and thought process. And the rest? I have some recollection of tidbits from those books, but have they truly influenced how I've acted, how I live my life? Well, not really, or at least not in an obvious manner. Sure, I may recall something that those books mention if someone says something that warrants said information, which may make me look knowledgeable, but my perception is that if I can't find a use for such knowledge, whether it be dealing with other people, dealing with myself, or my various hobbies and vocations, then it really has no real value to me whatsoever. Trivia is trivia, but I just find it inherently useless, other than making me look smart, not actually being smart.

Intentional Consumption

What I want to get at is to not stop reading completely. That's just a ridiculous proposition. I want us to be more mindful in our consumption of information, because we can do things for the wrong reasons entirely, and tracking the amount of information that one consumes as opposed to what one digests is an error in emphasizing what's really valuable. I can consume all I want, but if I never really put it into some use, whether it be looking through another person's perspective to reduce judgment, or adding tools to my mental toolbox, then it's as good as garbage.

People back in the day truly valued their books. Books were not a common thing as it is now. If they got their hands on a book, they would reread it, over and over again, extracting as much value as possible from the information. Rereading in today's age is quite a rare activity, I think. And with modern social media, ruminating about a piece of information is just non-existent. We consume, we see something new, we move on. We get the illusion of digesting something, as it still makes us feel good if we find some really good information, but then... nothing happens after that. Information comes into our minds and then is immediately dethroned by some other new piece of information, leading to no internalization whatsoever. With the amount of words that keep our attention gradually getting smaller and smaller, it's no wonder why we're in a consumption-heavy society, both in terms of food and now in information.

This perception is why for me reading new books has gradually gone to a halt, and instead I'm rereading some of my favourite books over and over. Is it good to read new books? Of course! That's the only real way to find and prove the hidden gems out there, after all. It's good to be open-minded about other people's perspectives, and intaking something new. But is it good to pick up a new book every single time I finish one? I don't think so.

A paragraph from Letters from a Stoic by Seneca perfectly encapsulates this entire premise of information overconsumption:

"Nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in the mere passing. A multitude of books only gets in one's way. So if you are unable to read all of the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.
And if you say, 'But I feel like opening different books at different times', my answer will be this: tasting one dish after another is the sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they lead to contamination of the system, not nutrition."
Letters from a Stoic, Letter II

To think that these letters were written in the period 63-65 AD, approximately 1960 years ago, is crazy. If they were having problems with internalizing too much information then, how much more in the present day where literally any sort of information is right at our fingertips?

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