Deciding What and How to Read

I've written, of late, about the overwhelming amount of information that rushes upon us every day. News and data are no longer the province of established newspapers and magazines. Countless resources now compete for our attention, including those -- like the website Buzzfeed -- which elude classic categories and blur the lines between news and entertainment.

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With so much out there, it's not easy deciding whom or what to read, whom or what to trust. I face this issue with students as I try to get them to recognize proper authorities and experts. The first page of a Google search, I explain, doesn't always yield reliable or trusworthy information.

With so many resources and so many outlets telling us about ourselves and the world, it's actually something of a difficulty deciding what to spend time on. I'm curious what readers think. If you're a Catholic who follows blogs, what do you read, and why? How do you educate yourself on the developments within the Church? Do you spend more time reading books or reading online articles?

And, as a general matter, where do you seek intellectual nourishment? How do you decide what to read? In weighing the different venues for political, cultural and religious material, how do you sift the serious instead of the trivial, the truthful from the misleading? How much do you rely upon the news feed of Facebook or Twitter? Is that your "base camp" of daily news?

Would you rather read a national newspaper or listen to NPR?

And what kind of reader are you? Do you skim and browse, aiming for quantity over quality? Or do you read fewer materials but in greater depth?

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Sandi Sinor
3 years 3 months ago
OK - nobody has commented, so I'll start the ball rolling. What kind of reader am I? All of those you mention. I love to read. Like most diehard readers I read from different sources for different reasons. I read for information - my hometown paper (the Washington Post), occasionally other newspapers, and the internet. I read The Economist. I read fiction for entertainment and escapism. I read in depth in subjects that interest me (books, serious analysis in journals etc). So sometimes I browse and skim, sometimes I read in depth. I never listen to NPR or watch television (except for escapism) and especially not the talking head shout-out shows. I have hit 60s, and do not bother with Twitter at all. I look at Facebook to see the pix of all 54 of my Facebook friends. Yes, I follow Catholic blogs - obviously. I get Catholic news from NCRonline. That is because NCR does not censor - does not filter out the bad news and present only the Pollyanna news of most Catholic news sites (including the pap that is in the diocesan newspaper). I read America mostly for the blogs and occasionally a "real" article. I read Commonweal blogs and more in-depth articles. I use all three sites as pointers to books, journal articles, authors etc that are mentioned in the articles or blogs. I read a lot of books about religion and spirituality. I have several bookcases in my home, mostly built-ins that I kept making my husband build, but also two very large stand-alones in the basement. One is all religion/spirituality (and I have given away more books than I have kept). I have a wide range but prefer contemporary spiritual writers such as Henri Nouwen, Merton, Richard Rohr, etc. I have heavy (literally and figuratively) stuff such as Raymond Brown's 800+ page "Introduction" to the New Testament and Diarmaid MacCulloch's even longer History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. I often use books such as those as reference books. I have Karen Armstrong, Joan Chittister, the three Theresas, John of the Cross, Brother Lawrence, The Cloud of Unknowing; Evelyn Underhill, Rowan Williams, N.T. Wright, Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan; Garry Wills, Peter Phan, Donald Cozzans, Ron Rolheiser, John O'Malley, Hans Kung and many more who write about a very broad range of topics. I have Thich Naht Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Eknath Easwaren and other "eastern" spiritual writers. I do not read the bishops' various pronouncements as the bishops tend to make my blood pressure go up . You are young and you teach people who are even younger. I imagine that most of them would give you a very different list and that may be what concerns you as a teacher. I despair over my own kids (now adults about your age) because they were once avid readers of real books. Now it's mostly the internet, and The Economist for political/economic analysis. At least they read The Economist! Those in high school and college today? Perhaps you will tell us what they read. Or even if they read anything longer than 140 characters if it's not assigned schoolwork.
Matt Emerson
3 years 3 months ago

Thanks for sharing, Sandi. That is quite a list -- what a personal library.  I'm curious: what are you looking for in the authors you list? What draws you to them, and at the same time, what draws you away from what the Bishops write? 

I've actually never posed these questions to my students, which now makes me think I should.  My concerns, generally, arise in research projects where they must learn how to filter out unreliable sources. As everyone knows, the Internet lacks the gatekeeping functions of old-school publishers and libraries. Sometimes, this is good, but it complicates the search for trustworthy books and articles, especially blogs.  But there is a larger issue at stake: how they make sense of the world; the resources they turn to to "get their bearings," to find out what's going on. On this, they need guidance.  

Joshua DeCuir
3 years 3 months ago
To me, the issue of "authority" or how to filter who you're reading is based on two things. First, each "field" tends to have people that are recognized as having some authority. And those voices tend to be very easily identifiable with any modest effort. For example, I don't think it would take someone wanting to learn more about economics to figure out that Paul Krugman's blog is an important source of information that often shapes the conversation on a party topic. Identifying those "authorities" is pretty easy (or so it seems to me). The harder part is, to me, keeping my reading loyalty. And for me, the bedrock principle as to whether I keep reading is whether, after I have invested in reading a piece, do I understand the complexities of the issue better as a result of it? So, for example, while I recognize that Paul Krugman is an authoritative voice on some topics, I don't really read him often because I find he too frequently veers into snarkisms, & generally tends to assume the bad faith of the other side as a starting point. On the other hand, I almost always feel like I genuinely understand more of the issue - even of the arguments of those I disagree with - after I read someone like Ross Douthat, Ezra Klein, EJ Dionne, Bill Galston. Frankly, I think the "younger" voices like Douthat, Salam, Klein (and there are others) have really remade journalism into some more interesting.
Sandi Sinor
3 years 3 months ago
I find the subject of religion and spirituality to be fascinating, so I have a lot of books. I have found many favorites through the recommendations of friends or from a reference in an article or blog. I am more interested in spirituality than in formal religion. The older I get, the more off-putting I find organized religion to be. The SBNRs are not all young! I am a "dissenter" and believe that it has very often been the dissenting theological voices in the church who have been the prophetic voices that have pushed the church into, hmmm, "developing" doctrine. The bishops as a group are anything but prophetic, spiritual or insightful. They are good company men, loyal to the boss in Rome - politicians and administrators. Looking to them for spiritual or moral guidance is a waste of time. Sorry. The internet is a wonder. But, as you say, young people need to develop some techniques. The danger of being overwhelmed by TMI is all too real. I do a lot of research for my work, and Wiki and mainstream news sources are a good starting point for kids - emphasis on starting point. I assume they know that Wiki articles alone cannot be trusted, but those articles usually provide citations. So they should go to the citations and begin following the threads. Footnotes in books and journal articles can be used the same way - to lead them to other reliable sources.They can explore the collections of colleges and universities almost everywhere - online. They can retrieve an unbelievable amount of solid raw information and data from government agencies and international agencies. Most colleges and universities have treasure troves of source data available online. In my professional work, I use source documents as often as possible. If, for example, a news article reports that a study indicates that more and more people support legalizing gay marriage, they should find the study and read it themselves. They should be taught to proactively seek out opposing views - from legitimate sources. It's the "legitimate" that gets tricky, but for academic research, it's pretty easy to filter. For general news coverage of politics, economics, etc, I would recommend The Economist for your students. It is well researched, well written, presents an international perspective on many world issues, and often has more in-depth coverage than newspapers (even those like the NYT). Blogs are a real minefield. Some are written by nationally known names, known authorities, and are affiliated with legitimate sites (such as America or the New York Times) but most are just mom and pop stores. The students should learn to check credentials and affiliations and not simply assume the blogger knows what he/she is talking about. They can easily do that by googling the name of the author and looking for information about them - education, professional associations, etc. They should not assume that what the blogger puts out about themselves is the "whole truth". If the blogger does not provide information about him/herself, they should skip it all together as far as reliability goes. When they read something that just doesn't "sound" right, they should check it out. I imagine they all know about Snopes! I agree with Josh DeCuir that it's not too hard to differentiate, and agree with him also on the limitations of relying on newsfeeds. The self-selection bias is built in.
Joshua DeCuir
3 years 3 months ago
I am a very big consumer of blogs, primarily through Feedly, which took the place of the much-missed Google reader. The uses of the blogs vary from source to source: some I use simply as an aggregator of other information - Andrew Sullivan's The Dish being probably the best example. Some are better for more deeply engaging a particular topic - Ross Douthat tends to be the best example in my feed. The topics range from those related to my work - energy, business & law, to religion (America, Commonweal, Mirror of Justice, Michael Sean Winters, First Things), to sports to politics (I particularly love Reihan Salam's "The Agenda" & Ezra Klein's work for a counterpoint). Much to my surprise, Twitter has become probably my biggest source of news & information. I do not post much, but frequently update & peruse. I tend to follow a similar line-up to my blogs. I used to subscibe to muliple newspapers: our local newspaper, the Wall Street Journal & the New York Times. I scaled back to still getting a daily local paper & online access at the New York Times. I just don't have time to read through the newspapers everyday, & they sat unread. The Sunday New York Times is something I read primarily for its more in-depth coverage of topics & because it tends to be so exotic in its topics. Reading the social section never fails to cause at least one chuckle at the spectacle that is New York City. The problem with Twitter & blog feeds is that they are so self-selective. You can literally design an information diet that feeds you nothing but a feeback loop of information that proof-texts your own preheld ideas & opinions. So I do try to really read very diverse viewpoints. I have found in doing so that, while I certainly still hold certain opinions, I more inclined to second-guess myself & have found myself being more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to those I don't agree with. This is why Fr. Malone's commentary when America Magazine adopted its recent editorial stance on the use of labels hit so close to home for me.

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