I’m currently reading James Gleick’s 2011 book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, which tells the story of how information came to be, and came to be classified and organized. I’m just starting the book, but the chapter I read today, on the process of recording and organizing words and definitions into dictionaries, was fascinating.
A large part of Gleick’s explanation, at least in the early part of the book, has to do with how everything we think about through history is informed by our current circumstances. He likens it to trying to explain horses as four-legged automobiles without wheels. Words, he says, for much of human history were oral, not written, and it was only with the invention of the printing press that humans felt the need to create lists of words with standardized spellings and definitions.
In the chapter on dictionaries, Gleick notes that during the early production of what became the Oxford English Dictionary, the editors put out a call for readers to cover 16th and 17th century literature. At that point, they believed that the entirety of human literature was finite.
The modern editors face an infinite, ever-expanding amount of written knowledge. I can relate.
It seems like no matter how much I read, my reading list just keeps getting longer and longer. And now, with web tools like Pocket and Instapaper, I can quantify just how infinite my reading list is. I save long-form articles in Pocket, I use Chrome bookmarks to save websites that require more interaction or specific notes, I have a Google Doc Spreadsheet of books that I have saved from lists, book reviews, and interviews I see, I have a stack of paper magazines a foot high and a stack of virtual magazines on my iPad twice that size. And everyday, through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other sources, I discover new articles and websites that I never would have found before.
Sometimes, on particularly slow news days, a coworker and I joke that we’ve “read the whole internet,” and sometimes, especially when it comes to news of the day stories, it feels that way. But mostly, I feel like I’m buried under piles and piles of reading that I want to do, but may never get to. And each day, the piles get bigger.