It's Free and It's Something to Read

At the Fourteenth Street subway station, a woman was handing out copies of AM New York. Her sales pitch: “It’s free and it’s something to read.”

To anyone below about forty, this sounds completely absurd. If you have the barest amount of internet access, there’s no shortage of somethings to read, and there hasn’t been for a long time. Like everybody, I have far too much to read, between my open tabs and Pocket queue and library checkouts in Libby and PDFs sitting in my downloads (that I really will get around to someday!); a lack of reading material isn’t remotely an issue. Instead, the real problem is narrowing down the list to the few hundreds or thousands of things that’re worth the time so that I can just get them out of the way and die more-or-less at peace, in about sixty years or so, with only a few dozen unread articles left to my successors to finish or, what seems more likely, to pass on to their own inheritors.

But before the internet hit the mainstream, in the mid-90s, reading material was, if not truly scarce, then at least often not there when you wanted it. Bored at breakfast and you’ve already finished reading the good parts of the paper? Well, cereal ingredient lists have lots of chemicals with tricky names; maybe work those over in your mind for a bit. Ditto the bathroom: I’m sure I could reconstruct the shampoo I used as a kid, entirely from memory, just as well as any chemical engineer working today.

In two decades, we changed the reading material problem entirely: now that there’s no much of it, so readily available, that there’s a lot less value in the material itself, and a lot more value in organizing and prioritizing what’s out there.