Starred items are forever

by Rob Horning

2 July 2008


Since I switched to Google Reader, I’ve gotten into the habit, as I’m blasting through all the blogs I subscribe to via RSS, of starring items that I want to think about more later, and perhaps even write about. Of course, I almost never refer back to these starred items, because there is a nonstop flow of new items in my Reader I’m always trying to keep pace with. Instead they linger there, with my act of starring them standing in for the promised deeper thought that never occurs. Before Google Reader, I’d tag items in and send them to bookmark purgatory. And I’d do a lot of thinking about what I was calling the bookmark effect, which I first noticed when studying for exams. I became aware of how underlining something or scrawling a note in the margin of a book was very gratifying, and how if I wasn’t doing that, I felt like I wasn’t really studying or learning anything. This was true even though the underlining was replacing thought—it was as if I were acknowledging that someone else thought something perceptive, and it was sufficient for me to let that person be a proxy for my own thinking. The underlining was an act of appropriation, a way of buying and consuming the perceptive thought without having to think through it or extend it or integrate—that work was left for some time later. (That time has not yet come, and I still have many of the annotated tomes to prove it.) The decision to underline was akin to a purchasing decision—did I “buy” that idea? And this process commodified my reading for me, which gave me an elusive feeling of mastery over it, even as the reading lists continued to extend themselves.

Now, as technology has advanced, bookmarking an interesting post or article (or starring it) has supplanted underlining, etc. It’s still a way for me to dispatch interesting ideas without having to deal with them any more deeply—I just add them to the collection, and take comfort that it is there, forever fresh in my starred items list. It’s not all that different from buying books in lieu of reading them. The bookmarking/starring gesture allows me to consume in the present moment the thinking I pretend I’ll do later, which is an extremely gratifying feeling, particularly if I wisely avoid ever consulting my bookmarks later on. If I make that mistake, though, I feel nothing but shame for my laziness, and despair when the deferred overwhelmingness of it all hits me like a furnace blast.

At some point I’ll need to do a link dump of all that stuff, sort through it and see if still recognize the potential I once saw there. But still the urge to avoid is strong; the ideas seem more potent as unrealized potential. Sorting through them would be like cleaning out my closet; I’d be forced to get rid of stuff that I may never use but that still somehow comforts me to possess.

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