instant omniscience

We finally got some groceries delivered yesterday. It’d been a long stretch—tough to get a Whole Foods or Instacart slot in Brooklyn these days. (Yes, of course, there are far worse problems to have.) Can I just say that I will never take apples for granted again? Peeling them seems absurdly wasteful. Applesauce, impossibly decadent. Reader: If you have apples, red, shining, glorious apples—and I hope you do—savor every crisp and succulent bite. Eat the damn cores if you want to! As the old saying goes, when the world gives you lemons, make apple juice. 

(Just kidding about eating apple cores, though. As G.I. Joe taught me at the age of 7, apple seeds contain cyanide and can be used to poison giant slime monsters. Knowing is half the battle!)

Recently, I switched back to Pocket from Instapaper for my longform reading and transferred all my archived articles over. (If you’re a regular reader of the Maven Game, you’ll know I switch apps regularly. What can I say? It makes me feel alive.) As a result, I’ve found myself re-reading old articles I haven’t looked at in years.

This is one of the great perks of long-form reading apps: the archives. Gather round for a story, kiddies. Back in the days of vinyl records and rotary phones, people would keep old magazines lying around. Mostly in the bathroom. But also on coffee tables, which were also somehow a thing, and which probably should have been called “old magazine trays.” You’d just pick one up at random, kick back on the Barcalounger, and flip through it at your leisure during what people called “free time.” (This was before social media and Netflix.) 

My grandparents kept dozens of issues of National Geographic on the shelf next to their 22-volume Encyclopedia Judaica, yellow spines vivid next to blue. That just isn’t practical anymore—in the home, the doctor’s office, the barber shop, nowhere do you find a stack of old magazines anymore. In my home, all that remain are a bunch of ancient Fantasy & Science Fiction issues sprinkled with memorable stories I encountered during childhood and five or six original, pre-blog bOING bOING zines Mark Frauenfelder gifted me years ago. 

What can you do? At this point, it’s an internal struggle just to keep the books—I could replace my shelves with an actual desk. I like writing on the bed, but with months of quarantine ahead of me, I’m increasingly tempted to get a state-of-the-art VR rig with four headsets. That way, the whole family can go to a virtual movie theater together.

It’s a shame because old magazines are much more interesting than new ones. Journalism, like cheese, usually gets better with age. As the passage of time seasons our perspective, any given issue of a magazine goes from relevant to trivial back around to fascinating: “Is that what people really thought? Is that what life was really like?” And some articles are, like dahlias and hibiscus, perennial. These appear in essay collections, but only a fraction: The 20th century, Century of the Magazine, is a journalistic kunstkammer, a trove brimming with forgotten short masterpieces. 

Spurred by the demand generated by tools like Instapaper and Pocket, some excellent pieces have been rediscovered and given new life thanks to longform journalism aggregators like Longreads. But if plumbing the journalistic archives to research my latest ghostwriting project has taught me anything, it’s that we’re still only scratching the surface. There’s so much good stuff! The Internet is a time machine, truly. If you’re looking for something useful and fun to do during quarantine, what could be more delightful and socially beneficial than sifting through back issues of a favorite periodical and sharing the best of what you find?

One piece that surfaced in my Pocket account is Calvin Trillin’s essay about his time at Time. In it, Trillin recalls the golden era of “group journalism” in the 1960s:

Starting as strictly a rewrite operation, Time eventually had reporters and stringers around the world. They sent “files” to an operation called Time Edit, in New York, where writers, drawing on those files and the material that researchers had dug out of the library and whatever could be lifted from the Times, composed tight narratives that were conveniently compartmentalized into sections like Sport and Medicine and Religion and Show Business. 

I’ve written previously about the necessity of wearing multiple hats as a writer. My workflow for the current book involves (1) assembling facts as a series of chronologically organized to-do items in Google Tasks (the “files”) then (2) opening the Google Doc and incorporating each one into the text, checking them off as I go.

As a “floater” at Time Edit, Trillin would sub in on a section when its editor was on vacation or out sick. Sport, Medicine, Religion, Show Business: He had to make it work. Sounds an awful lot like what I do:

When I settled into the desk chair of, say, the Education writer, someone who presumably pored through the education quarterlies and lunched with school reformers and kept abreast of the latest disagreements about how best to teach reading, I could feel myself imbued with the authoritative tone favored in those days at Time; I called that “instant omniscience.” I had become adept at using one of the tools employed to assert Time’s authority—what I thought of as the corrective “in fact,” as in “Democrats maintain that the measure would increase unemployment. In fact…” There were no bylines in Time then, so the readers had no way of knowing whether the Art section’s critique of the new Coventry Cathedral had been written by someone steeped in the history of church architecture or by a floater who’d moved in after a short stint in Medicine that had left him with no words in the magazine for two weeks and a more detailed knowledge of loop colostomy procedures than he’d ever hoped to have.

Clearly, Calvin enjoyed “instant omniscience” and I have to admit I do, too. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve had to rapidly acquire broad, if shallow, expertise on the subjects of franchising, chocolate, biopharmaceuticals, and antitrust law, among too many others. Working as an in-house editor provided a similar, though vicarious thrill, but as the writer, it’s all on my shoulders. At times, I feel a little bit like Neo in The Matrix: I know kung fu.” 

The beauty of the Web—did I mention I now have extensive and fairly in-depth knowledge of the history of the World Wide Web?—is that this charming intellectual pursuit is open to any one of us. Go blog whatever interests you! In fact, with so many unemployed and stuck in quarantine, old-school “blogging about whatever” is making a comeback. Maybe it’s time you fired up a new WordPress site, took a bite out of a crisp, red apple, and shared a little instant omniscience of your own?

p.s. By the way, I was just featured in What’s in My Bag, a newsletter run by the fine folks behind Cool Tools, where I was also featured a little while back. Naturally, I haven’t actually used my bag in a few weeks, but what better escapist fantasy during a pandemic than reading about the things people would carry if they were able to go anywhere?

p.p.s. Marg K. writes: “I really look forward to reading your weekly essay and weirdly I’ve always wondered how it is that people respond and comment. It never occurred to me to simply hit the reply button. Silly me!” Not silly at all, Marg. In fact, I suspect some other readers might find the tip helpful, not only for my newsletter but for all of them. Go ahead, try it now!