How do other people deal with the torrent of information that pours down on us all? Do they have some secret? Perhaps. We are asking various people who seem well-informed to describe their media diets. This is drawn from an email exchange, edited for clarity and length, with Jennifer Egan, who recently won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad.
If I'm not taking the kids to school, I try to at least look through The New York Times right after my husband leaves with them. We still get the physical paper; I'm not a big fan of screen reading. My first reading is often a scan, but I scan with Post-its in hand, and often end up marking several things: articles that might interest our kids; articles that catch my attention for reasons I'm not clear on (most important from the fiction writing standpoint); others that appeal to me journalistically; cultural events we might want to check out.
If I do take the kids to school, I'll read to my younger son after we drop off the elder. For the past month or so, we've been reading the Arabian Nights, which is quite bloody and rash—we both love it. That is often the first thing I'll read in the morning on those days. Walking home from school takes 15-20 minutes, and I always listen to my iPod while walking, in part to distract me from the grocery bags I'm often lugging by that time. My morning music choices tend to be, let's say, energizing rather than sophisticated: this morning it was a couple of Lady Gaga hits from last summer: "Telephone" and "Let's Dance." If a song is putting me in the right mood, I'll often just repeat it the whole way home.
If I'm working well, I’m not on a computer much—I write and edit fiction by hand. Lately, because I'm in a promotional mode, I'm pretty attached to my laptop (a MacBook Pro). I start my work day with email, which often leads to scanning a few things online. I don't really read blogs, and I'm rarely on Twitter. I do look at Facebook, mostly to answer messages, but sometimes looking at that will lead me to an article or two. But as the proportion of people I actually know among my Facebook Friends decreases, these links are most often supplied by strangers, and therefore less immediately intriguing. I do have a Twitter handle, but I've proved an inert tweeter (four total!), and I very rarely even go on Twitter, so I'm pretty oblivious to what's going on there. I just can't seem to adapt to the language or rhythm of Twitter, and so I find myself avoiding it.
Really, I read online with the goal of getting through whatever I'm reading so I can get off the computer and go to work. While on the laptop, I'll often stream music on Pandora; lately I've gotten really into Jose Gonzales that way. I don't have a smartphone, so I don't do any online reading once I'm off my laptop. I do check the New York Times site a few times a day, just to see if there are any big things going on that I should know about.
I subscribe to email newsletters from Salon.com and Foreign Affairs, and I also get a couple of alerts from psychology publications. Those are left over from an article I wrote a couple of years ago about bipolar kids, but I still really enjoy them. My homepage on my Internet browser is just Google. In some sense, I think I'm trying to keep it Spartan, because I don't want to be tempted by lots of links and stories that will eat up my time. I am constantly, avidly, desperately trying to maximize the time I have, because I never seem to have enough.
We subscribe to a lot of print publications, in addition to The New York Times: The Financial Times, The New Yorker, Harpers, The Economist, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The Paris Review, Cooks Magazine, Consumer Reports, Real Simple, Cabinet, and I'm probably forgetting some. I dip in and out of most of these, but the only one I make a conscious effort to read thoroughly are The Times and The New Yorker. I don't always manage both, and at certain frantic times I manage neither. For the rest, I read what interests me. My priority is always to read books, and if I'm really into a book, it's hard to stop reading it in favor of magazines.
I usually get into bed with a novel and our Post-it-studded Times. I try to read the Times thoroughly and carefully at the end of the day. I'm fully aware that the news is two days old by then, and of course in certain areas I'll be way ahead of it, but it’s the depth that I enjoy, and I find that it serves me well when the news isn't fresh. The depth is twofold; on the one hand, I want to try to understand what's going on, rather than just know what's going on. On the other, I'm always trying to feed the unconscious part of me that's scheming away—often without my conscious knowledge—at fiction writing. I never know what material that fiction writing part will end up needing or using, but I do like to let it chew through the Times on a daily basis.
After I'm done with that, I read fiction. Reading fiction is purely fun for me—and luckily it's also something that feeds the work I do. Yesterday I finished Meg Wolitzer's The Uncoupling, which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I'm about to start Jessica Hagedorn's Toxicology, which I've heard great things about. I think the last thing I read that got profoundly under my skin was Emma Donohue's Room, which I read a couple of weeks ago. I thought about it as I read a news story (in the Times, of course!) about the guilty plea by that couple in California who kidnapped an 11-year-old girl, Jaycee Dugard, 20 years ago. They imprisoned her in the backyard and she had two daughters by her captor before she was discovered. Because of Room, I read the news story with a sense of resonant personal knowledge that I've never felt about those stories of captivity before. The feeling reminded me of why fiction is critical to me—more than nonfiction, and I say that as a journalist! Nonfiction expands my knowledge, but fiction broadens my experience. Reading the news story, I thought: I'm so glad to have read Room.
Very often I fall asleep while reading. I never seem to be able to decide that I'm done…I just like to keep reading until my body decides for me. More often than not, my husband will turn off my light and take away the book.