The Age of Chatter

To avoid information overload, it helps to narrow your vision.

There's nothing like the chatter and roar and blink-blink-blink of modern media culture to draw your attention to, well, the quality of your own attention. Driving around, watching TV, logging on--just getting through the day--becomes a sort of reverse-Zen meditation. The clamor and flash is so drastically everywhere-and-already too much that you either start banging your head against a wall or become darn strict about what you do and don't notice.

Russell Baker did a great column years ago rejoicing in the large categories of stuff he'd simply stopped paying attention to. The governing image was of information as a mighty flow, against which, with age, he'd shut whole rows of intake valves. He'd stopped even trying to keep track of how much he didn't know about say, nanotechnology or hip-hop or the international cinema. And did not care.

New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast had another nice metaphor for the mental feel of middle age. A Roz Chast lady--smile, glasses, frowsy pillbox hat and dumpy coat--stands in front of her personal memory bank, cheerfully opening safe deposit drawers and swapping things in and out: In goes Julia Roberts' love life, out goes the French and Indian Wars; in goes three PIN numbers and a password, out goes a knock-knock joke. There's only so much room.

The older you get, the more you realize that you can't know it all, so you might as well only pay attention to the things that really interest you and stop apologizing, even to yourself or the ghost of your civics teacher. The human genome? Don't care. Middle Eastern politics? God forbid. Britney Spears In Depth? I think not. (That was an actual headline on AOL last summer. AOL's assumptions about my probable interests--not to mention their gift for oxymoron--never cease to amaze. Britney is just, so, like ... well, whatever happened to Madonna? Where are the blondes of yesteryear?)

Nor do I worry any more about self-improvement. After finally being forced out of school, I realized that the upside of exile was that I never had to read another word of literary theory or criticism, and that, further, I was henceforth free to stop reading anything, anything at all, right in the middle of a sentence. Conversely, I could wallow in whatever print trash I happened to like the looks of. (I'd always done this, of course, but the wallowing had been tinged with shame.)

In the intervening years I've binged at will on true crime, speculative sci-fi, and the decipherment of Mayan, among other subjects, and am happier, if not wiser, for every useless page. I'm not a big TV person--I talk back, which is exhausting--so I go through a lot of print. I've found that the way to insure that I always have something to read is to pick up whatever catches my eye at the library and just haul it home, packrat-like. Result: last week I read a fabulously funny, obsessed book about Dutch soccer, Brilliant Orange, and another about research into harvester ants down near the Chiricahuas, Ants at Work. Neither one was a book I was remotely searching for, but there they both were on the New Books shelf, looking toothsome. Holland now makes a lot more sense, and the ants enrich my life every day--there's been a huge colony of the black ones in the alley for years, and I'd wondered what keeps the little scrabblers so busy out there.

The discovery of what's interesting is one of the compensations for getting older: Differentiation only comes with time. When we graduated from high school, we all had about the same store of facts--and one of a finite number of opinion-sets. As time goes on, and we look around a little, we start to specialize. We gradually become who we are in part by paying attention to what attracts us--it's not so much a matter of learning but of indulging our predelictions.

My brother, for instance, really knows snakes, alternative home construction, agate, railroad bridges and the back roads of Southern Arizona. I have a friend who's nails on paper Americana, contemporary British theater and the Jon-Benet Ramsey case. My husband has a deep understanding of Moby-Dick, The Sopranos, Hank Williams, the Baltimore Colts and pinball.

There's more to the world than the weird little sliver of it the mass media keep shoving at us. Who will The Bachelor choose? Click. Who got drowned, shot or run down today in Tucson? Click. Footage of the latest Home Depot opening. Princess Di's butler speaks. A remake of Carrie. (OK, I give up. Why?) Last night's award show. 0% APR financing. How can YOU prevent crib death?!? Click. Click. Click.

It's noisy, it's repetitive, it's dumb and, worst of all, it's really, really not interesting. The ants and the agates and Tucson-Pima Public Library, on the other hand, are still unsponsored, and, as my bro says, cheaper than cable.