Media Diet: 2021

I love it when someone makes an accounting of their media diet. For instance, I still remember a series The Atlantic undertook a decade ago in which they asked about the media diets of people like Margaret Atwood and Ta-Nehisi Coates (and many others).

It would be interesting to post, once a year, a round-up of my own media diet.

One prefatory note: I try to expose myself to dissensus. My media diet is ideologically diverse on purpose. Just because I list something here doesn’t mean I endorse its point of view — indeed, some things I pay attention to just for the purpose of keeping a wary eye on them!

(If any of you would care to share your own media diets in the comments, I’d be delighted to hear about them. Or if you post one on your own website and notify me, I’ll link to it at the top of this post.)

RSS

I think rss remains the best way to experience independent writing on the internet — far superior to even the most carefully curated stream on a social media platform. I use Feedly as my feed reader, and at the moment I subscribe to 131 rss feeds. Once a day I scroll through all new items, archiving most without reading them, but saving anything that looks interesting to Instapaper. When I’m forced to wait somewhere, I read what’s saved in Instapaper on my phone. So my feeds are sorted into a kind of endless magazine that’s always in my pocket.

Here are the subset of feeds that have most often prompted me to save things on Instapaper in the last few months. About half are sources of original writing, and the rest are excellent aggregators of links:

And here is a second subset of my feeds that are notable even though I don’t often save things from them on Instapaper. This is because they post short — but interesting — texts that only take a minute or two to read, and so I tend to read them the moment I encounter them:

PRINT MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTIONS

Because I’ve been forced to live in one place for a whole year — thank you pandemic — I took advantage of the stable mailing address to splurge on a bunch of print magazine subscriptions. I devote weekend mornings to keeping up with them. They include:

  • Artforum

  • Asimov’s Science Fiction

  • Bookforum

  • Foreign Affairs

  • The London Review of Books

  • Fantasy & Science Fiction

  • New Left Review

  • The New York Review of Books

  • Raritan

ONLINE MAGAZINES

When I find my Instapaper queue getting a bit low — often when I’m traveling and therefore have a greater than usual need for a bottomless magazine in my pocket — I will open all the following magazines in tabs on my internet browser and trawl them for things to add to the queue.

For short fiction:

For everything else:

EMAIL NEWSLETTERS

I’ve cut back quite a bit on email newsletter subscriptions — they were turning my inbox into the sort of stream I try to avoid by not being on social media. But I still keep up with a few. These three are excellent for different reasons:

I’ve also just started following these (and they’ve only just begun publishing), but they seem promising, considering their authors:

NEWSPAPERS

I have a low opinion of the empirical reliability of newspapers for the most part (so many details of most breaking stories have to be corrected later), so I consider this list a gestalt aggregate. All I try to take from it is a general sense of what is going on in the world and what people are saying about it, and I try to read it with a bird’s-eye-view, constantly reminding myself that much of what I’m seeing is likely to be misreported and that every single op-ed section in existence is an ideology-manufacturing machine. As with my print magazines, I confine my time with these newspapers to weekend mornings. (Except when really important or terrifying things are happening in the world — a distinction 2020 put to the test.) So here’s the list, in alphabetical order:

BOOKS

Perhaps the best way to approach this crucial category — books constitute by far the majority of my media diet — is to list where I turn when deciding what to read next. I pick books from these sources (and also sometimes at random, and sometimes to aid in the completion of a specific project):

  • A list I’ve compiled (and steadily add to) based purely on titles I keep seeing and wishing I had already read. For instance, that’s why I’m presently reading Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. I add books to this list when I notice they keep cropping up in other things I’m reading. I guess it’s more or less a list of classics. It’s a big list.

  • Specific presses that reliably publish interesting books. At the moment, I find myself mostly doing this with NYRB Classics and Archipelago Books. I have in moments of delusion aspired to read the entire back catalogs of these presses, that’s how much I love them.

  • Book catalogs. I peruse the seasonal catalogs of forthcoming books from a list of about thirty presses each season, looking for things I might want to review. Relatedly, sometimes editors assign me books to review — but they usually find these books in the same catalogs, so it’s the same source plus a middleman.

  • Specifically for science fiction and fantasy books, the yearly retrospective Locus Recommended Reading List (that link only goes to the 2019 edition; sadly there’s no single place aggregating all the lists, not that I’m aware of; you have to search for the new one every February). I also take a large number of recommendations from Nina Alan’s blog (see above) and the Coode Street Podcast (see below) and, occasionally, I learn of interesting books from Strange Horizon‘s book review section.

RESEARCH

I’ve developed a few methods for learning about things I’m casually interested in, methods that are, in my opinion, superior to just typing stuff into an internet search bar and reading the first drivel that appears or diving down a wikipedia hole.

  • Print encyclopedias in academic libraries. Honestly few things are more pleasurable than going to a university research library with a list of things you are moderately curious about, and getting a bunch of relevant volumes of general and specialist encyclopedias, sitting at a table, and perusing short, expert, well-edited articles. I could honestly just spend all my time doing that. You come to realize how debased and deceptive internet searching has become, at least as a way to learn about things. Internet searching is great for buying things, but that’s all it’s great for. When you want to learn about something, you’re beset by SEO-generated crud to the horizon in all directions. Probably most of the information in the world is out there, on the web, somewhere, but it’s not at our fingertips the way we think it is. In a research library the world’s knowledge really is at your fingertips.

  • Oxford Bibliographies. This is a (paywalled, I’m sorry to say) collection of annotated bibliographies by subject experts. I have alumni access through my grad school alma mater. Each bibliography lists, describes, and evaluates overviews, anthologies, and cutting-edge area-specific monographs on a topic or sub-discipline. It’s like having an erudite professor who’s willing to give you book lists and explain why she’s recommending each book. If I were King of All Researchers and Academics, I would devote 10% of the world’s research budget to paying experts on every subject under the sun to make and maintain bibliographies like this, and I would make them open access.

PODCASTS

Idle listening during household chores:


And that’s pretty much it.

Before you ask: no, I don’t really watch TV or movies. Not out of principle — I just have a hard time getting interested in them.

There’s a final borderline subject: video games. About once every four months, I take a long weekend to play a video game for thirty or forty hours straight. I like RPG-style games with great writing, and I like complex 4x strategy games. So my video gaming is brief and rare, but intense and concentrated. It’s not a regular part of my media diet, but it deserves mention in any complete accounting.


Writing this took longer than I expected, and it won’t really even be that interesting until I write another installment next year so I can compare the differences… But maybe at least one person will find at least one new and interesting thing because of these lists.

2 Comments

Mike Swickey January 7, 2021 Reply

I agree – so much! – with what you wrote about encyclopedias at a good library. They are without equal for sit-down-and-learn-about-something-random, but with a depth that truly gives you a micro education. That affinity was mothered along early in life when in fourth grade I was smitten with a set of World Book encyclopedias. It was my first window to the world — and it never shut.

As for online information, polluted by affiliate marketing, I couldn’t agree with you more. One of the alternate search providers (maybe Metager?) is working on searches that will have an operator switch that will remove all results with more than two affiliate links. I try to make good use of current operators available like minus this, or minus that, no results from certain domains, etc. but it’s not enough. Weeding out affiliate sites will make a huge difference.

Great info in this article. Well-rounded and erudite.

Robert Minto January 8, 2021 Reply

Nice to hear from you Mike.

I don’t know how internet search could be saved. Thinking about it, because of how important the organization of knowledge is to me, makes me want to despair. Recently I read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism — which I recommend — and it drove home for me that advertising is not a money-making supplement to the work of companies like Google, but the entire and central reason they exist. Individuals browsing the internet are, from their perspective, a herd of cattle grazing, the commodity not the client.

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