Reading Blogs Like Books

In my last post, I talked about how I gave up reading blogs for a while by dumping all of my feeds from Google Reader. Initially I still found myself opening GReader, but since it was devoid of content, the habit died much more quickly than if I would have just tried to restrain myself from opening GReader.

A couple of months later, when I felt that I had the habit under control, I started adding a feed or two — or six or eight — to the reader, until I realized that I was back where I started. Whenever I was bored or anxious, feed reading was my crutch activity. So I dumped the feeds again and recovered.

But then I started thinking about the root of the problem. What is it about RSS that makes it so addictive? Why do I find books so much more satisfying to read than blogs? Books obviously treat their subject matter in more depth, but perhaps there’s a better reason. Books provide closure. They have a beginning, middle and end. Using an RSS reader, that experience can be approximated with blogs.

The Case Against Serial Content

Blogs manage our expectations in ways that can be counterproductive. Content that’s automatically delivered to an inbox on a daily or hourly basis conditions readers to live in a state of constant anticipation, contributing to what’s usually referred to as Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). As long as something is waiting for us in one of our inboxes, we feel compelled to keep up with the flow of information.

The alternative is to catch up rather than keep up. Catching up is the default mode of consuming information in books. All the information is sitting out there in a bundle that you can read from start to finish in one or more sittings, providing a sense of closure. If you feel the need to read more of a book after finishing it, it’s usually to fill in gaps in understanding; it’s not just a ritual behavior of checking for more information.

Keeping up is the default mode of consuming information in blogs. There’s always something new to read, so there’s never a sense of closure. While blogs are almost never structured to have a beginning-middle-end lifecycle, it’s pretty easy to set them up so they can be read in one or a few sittings without the need to “follow” them indefinitely.

Setting up Your Blog in Google Reader

You can probably use any RSS reader for this, but Google Reader is familiar enough. Since we want to move from keeping up with blogs to catching up (with the exception of WorkAwesome, of course), the first step is to dump all of your RSS feeds. There’s no need to freak out about permanently losing the dozens of feeds you’ve curated for yourself over time. Just export them as an OMPL file that you can re-import if necessary. Go to Settings | Reader Settings | Import and Export, click on “Export your subscriptions as an OMPL file”, and save to your desired location.

You’ll notice above that I mentioned setting up your “blog” rather than “blogs”. There’s nothing to stop you from performing the following operation on multiple blogs at once, but I highly recommend reading one blog at a time from beginning to end, removing that blog from the reader, then moving on to the next one rather than scrambling your brains with a bunch of disparate content.

Add the first blog to your GReader as you would any other blog: either by clicking on the site’s RSS chicklet or by hitting the a key for “Add a subscription” and adding the feed’s URL. The reader will populate with all of the feed’s new items. If you’re not already in List View, switch to it now by hitting the 2 key. Now we want to delete the current feed’s contents by hitting Shift-a for “Mark all as read”.

Now click the “View all items” link in the view pane, which will show you a complete list of all the blog’s posts. You can move the focus up and down through the list using the n key for Next and the p key for Previous. You can open the current header in focus with the o key, and close it by hitting the o key again. If you happen to be stuck with partial feeds that require you to click through to the site, you can use the v key without the need to open the header with the o key first; this will open the post in a new tab or window, depending on your browser settings. For more efficient reading, check to see whether the site offers a full feed. To skip the a post, mark it as read with the m key.

What’s nice about processing the full feed in list view is that you can glance at the headers without getting lured into the post contents unless you deliberately open them. Now you can run through an entire blog from beginning to end (or end to beginning, as is the default) by highlighting the next header with the n key, opening and closing the article with the o key, or marking it read with the m key. When you’ve completed the entire feed, refresh the view with the r key. The feed with now either be empty or have any posts that have arrived since you began reader. Process these the way to do with the initial batch, refresh, and repeat until you’re at inbox zero.

Then remove the feed from your reader. You’ve caught up, you don’t need to keep up. Rinse and repeat with your other feeds. This doesn’t have to be done in one sitting. It takes as long as it takes. I’ve found that the easiest way to complete all of feeds is to abandon as many as possible. I noticed that many of the blogs I was reading were simply regurgitating information from a much smaller set of authority blogs, so there wasn’t much point to rereading the same content with a slightly different spin.

Don’t Keep the Feeds

But what if you want to keep up with new posts? I recommend two approaches. Either go to the blogs manually occasionally (not daily) and quickly scan for new updates, or add them back into GReader long enough to process any new posts, then dump the feed again. The principle is to prevent automating the delivery of new content, so that you can maintain more conscious control of what you consume. You’ll find that it’s psychologically healthier to expose yourself to new content on an as-needed basis than to keep yourself running on the information treadmill.

Editor’s Note: Oops! I published these posts out of sequence, and you can expect the precursor to this piece, titled Don’t Increase Your Willpower — Reduce Your Options, shortly.

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Andre Kibbe currently works as a content analyst for Internet Brands. He can be found on Twitter: @andrekibbe


  1. Erwin Roosjen on the 29th April

    Although the tutorial is nice, I’m surprised at the comparison. RSS-feeds and blogs work much more like newspapers than like books, if you ask me. You pick the headlines you like and read the article below and you skip the uninteresting headlines altogether.

    I am not very familiar with GReader, but is there perhaps an option to only update the feeds once every day at a set time? Then you can read all the new articles after the update and when you start up GReader at another time, there won’t be anything new to read because the next update is not until tomorrow!

    • Andre Kibbe on the 29th April

      RSS feeds are exactly like newspapers if you allow them to be fed to you in a serial fashion. That’s why I made the distinction. The purpose of this style of blog reading to read the whole archive at once rather than continually keeping up to date.

      Even if I could find a setting to batch feeds at more infrequent intervals, which I haven’t, I’d consider that a difference in degree rather than kind. It would still create a situation where I’d be anticipating updates and feeling obligated to maintain my information consumption, which is what I was trying to disrupt. Some people have more willpower than I do.

  2. Nocturnal on the 29th April

    I’ve already done this a few times myself. I just recently added back a bunch of feeds though and it does consume a lot of my time.

  3. MarkusT on the 29th April

    is there any option to show feed itmes that are older than 30 days? i couldn’t find any option in google reader

  4. Andy Griffiths on the 29th April

    I only recently added RSS feeds to my mail program and I regularly find myself checking for new content when I perhaps should be working. It is very addictive and obviously the more feeds you have the more time you invest in reading them = NOT MUCH WORK GETTING DONE.

    Not to say it is not beneficial reading your feeds, as many of mine do actually help me in my job as a designer, feeding me with resources and satisfying my need to learn new techniques.

    Needs to be kept under close control though.

  5. Osvaldo M. on the 30th April

    “were simply regurgitating information from a much smaller set of authority blogs”, there is so much truth in that little sentence… I am myself a RIA developer and at one point i gathered on my “work research blogs” folder, 300+ different feeds which kept me “up to date” with web design/RIA topics… After a year or so of trying to read them all i noticed i failed miserable to actually do any proper research and as the author of the article points out, i found out 80% of my blogs were actually regurgitated info from a handful of blogs and a few newspaper sources… The experiment which actually worked for me was to print my entire URL feed, then sit down in front of the computer and type in the URL the blogs i remembered the most without looking at any feeds nor URLs… obviously, the ones whose articles appealed the most to me were remember quite easily… those ones whom i dont remember at all were completely removed from the feed….

  6. tejas on the 4th May

    You know what’s worse? Twitter.

  7. leon on the 13th May

    I created a rss in a free blog of mine, then created a post “don’t read rss too often”, and add it to my google reader.
    The last step is subscribing this rss and making this rss my default view in google reader.

    Now, when I go to google reader, the first thing I see is this post.
    That remind me, go to back to work.
    Anyway, the reading blog like books suggestion is very useful.

  8. Colin on the 14th September

    I find out a thing new on a variety of information sites everyday. It is always stimulating to find out content of other copy writers and learn a little something from them. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Megan Jones on the 26th April

    I don’t really agree with this post. I don’t think that blogs are analogous with books and should not be consumed in the same way as books. If you do have a problem wasting time or spending too much time reading blogs you might just edit what you are consuming rather than changing completely how you consume them. Since many blogs, like newspapers, are time sensitive or time relevant, saving them up and reading them all at once may not be very productive. I can’t imagine saving all my Sunday newspapers for a month and then reading them all at once.

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