Reading Time: 6min
Sifting through old albums and papers at my grandfather’s house one day, I came across a yellowing newspaper carefully folded over. The lettering was in Gujarati. I unfolded it and found it was an article, neatly cut out of the newspaper, about a home-made cure for cold.
It didn’t take long to find out who had saved this curious bit of Gujarati paper: my late grandfather, an ardent subscriber and reader of Gujarat Samachar, and quite keen on saving and archiving peculiar articles cut out from newspapers, a habit he has passed on to me.
Back in the day when newspapers arrived at our doorstep in physical form, I loved reading them, I especially looked forward to the Sunday ones, when the quota of newspapers delivered to our house was the highest (five!). Weekend articles were my favourite kind of reading material, and I’d save them to relish them slowly. I had all the time in the world, I was a teenager and it was a Sunday, the more I waited to read them, the greater was the pleasure in finally getting to them!
Sometimes, I would be driven by an urge to save a fascinating article that I had been reading. I would then fold the newspaper around the edges of that article and tear the article along the crease, as opposed to my grandfather, who tended to neatly cut around the article with a pair of scissors. I would then fold it in four parts and store it in my plastic bag, which was already brimming with similarly folded articles.
There was no rule governing what went inside that bag. There were articles about the latest Harry Potter movies and books, some columns that I found funny, informative and well-written pieces on history, some articles on politics that I found compelling at the time but later found out were biased and persuasive, and a few short stories that I thought were beautifully written. I would often go back to visit the newspaper clippings that I had saved in my plastic bag. I would go through the clippings, sometimes discard those that held no meaning for me anymore, and re-read several others. There was a joy in retaining the physical form of something that I thought I would want to visit later.
My grandfather would keep aside certain articles to read them again. I’m not sure if he ever kept the ones he re-read, though. It’s curious to examine the kind of articles my grandfather archived, the ones about home-made cures, or that one particular article on college and college entrance exams for studying abroad that he kept for me, when I had just stepped into junior college. For my grandfather, the newspaper clippings had to serve some practical purpose. If they were to be kept, they had to be useful in some way.
My own store of roughly cut-out newspaper clippings worked like a catalogue of things that once interested me immensely. When the Harry Potter series was at its peak, I was riding on its wave (very few were not, to be fair), collecting everything associated with it in the print form. To go back to my own personal archives of these newspaper cuttings is like going back to a particular time in my life.
This was, of course, all possible in a time when the internet was yet to boom in India properly, and when digital-native news sites were entirely unheard of. Today, however, there is a substantial shift from print media to digital and mobile platforms. Online news consumption has largely increased especially among English-speaking youth with internet access. According to this survey by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 56% of those under 35 primarily consume news online, whereas only 16% prefer print media.
Now that most news consumption has shifted online, what happens to this culture of archiving?
“There is a lot of information constantly released over the internet, more than you can ever hope to keep up with, more than perhaps you can process in a lifetime.”
An article by Slate talks about the Japanese word tsundoku, which refers to the act of hoarding books, letting them pile up and never reading them, and equates it with one of our most persistent digital habits: the act of opening tabs of articles that you mean to read soon, without actually getting around to ever reading them. This phenomenon is so prevalent, that it has become a running joke on social media. There are too many interesting things to read, and each of these interesting things has other interesting things hyperlinked to them, so the pile of articles to read is ever increasing. Furthermore, with the internet, you also have access to good work from all over the world – which only means more open tabs, more unread articles.
To deal with this alarming abundance of stories and articles to read at our disposal, apps such as Pocket and Instapaper may help, along with the bookmarking feature of internet browsers. When you want to read a new article, you could save it on the app or bookmark it and close the tab. Ideally, this would work if you save only those articles that you know you will read later, and then fix a time to go through them. But this rarely happens, at least it has never happened with me. I still have articles Pocketed from years ago and optimistically retained bookmarks from years ago. So, unfortunately, instead of an endless stream of open tabs on your browser, what you have is an endless scroll of articles in your app.
This behaviour of relentlessly opening new tabs with new articles in them, or the need to Pocket articles to read later reflects the overwhelming abundance of information at our disposal. There is a lot of information constantly released over the internet, more than you can ever hope to keep up with, more than perhaps you can process in a lifetime. This ultimately results in just skimming most articles at best, or not reading them at all and quietly letting them accumulate in forgotten apps and folders. Even though a lot of good writing is available for the curious to peruse, not many actually get read, and much less so, in-depth.
In a manner of speaking, this information overload that we seem to be experiencing, started with the invention of the Gutenberg Press. The invention of the printing press meant that, what once required months to reach a select few, would now take far less time to reach many. This was further accelerated when the photocopier and other technologies came along. And with digitisation, new information could be distributed to a large number of people, and those people could also create and publish information on their own.
Perhaps this could be one of the reasons that explain the proliferation and success of newsletters, including in India. Curatorial newsletters such as the one by the United States based journalist, Ann Friedman or those by writer Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan and blogger Resh Susan often carry a list of articles from various sites on the internet that they recommend reading. These are writers that have gained some currency in the online reading world; possibly, those who have subscribed to their newsletters are already familiar with their work and know the kind of reading material to expect. The list of articles that ultimately gets delivered in the subscribers’ inbox is imbued with the sense of being culled and carefully selected by a known person whose insights and recommendations you trust, who could satiate your need to read interesting things on the internet.
A wonderful article talks about how it is logical that we will miss out on most things that we want to engage with – good movies, art, performances, books, and articles, which may lead to feelings of underachievement and of not being well-read. There are, says the writer, only two responses to deal with this feeling: culling and surrender. In culling, you move head-on with actively sorting out the things that are absolutely worth your time from those that aren’t. You read articles from only particular sites or only a given number every day, and dutifully close the other tabs with interesting articles that remain open in your browser. Or, you surrender to the fact that you are never going to have the time to read every interesting article, feature, or story there is in the world, even though they are still worth your time. At the same time, you also acknowledge that this doesn’t make you a less curious or well-read person. You read a few good articles worth your time, and find value in them.
“It is logical that we will miss out on most things that we want to engage with”
I have a strong feeling that my grandfather would still, if he were here today, largely stick to print, and continue with his archiving habits. I have long since moved on to consuming news digitally. But I haven’t yet found a permanent way to archive the few stories and features that I like. Perhaps saving only the links to a note-taking app could work, organised under particular categories or genres.
I have wondered before if my Pocket (or a similar app) could serve as a place to digitally archive favourite news articles, which I could go back to and re-read, just like my grandfather would do with his print articles. But the chance doesn’t ever appear. There are far too many unread articles to be still trudged through first.
And they just keep increasing.
Tasneem Pocketwala works as a freelancer and writes on culture, identity, mental health, and gender. She is based in Mumbai.