De-Listing

Column: Of the reading of email newsletters, there is no end
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“I’ve got a little list,” sang Ko-Ko in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. I have got—or, more accurately, I am on—about 20 of them: Email newsletters to which I subscribe, and which appear in my inbox throughout the day. How I made it through life without all of these lists, which bring me the latest news on economics, politics, literature, foreign policy, defense, and media, I do not know. I am not quite sure how I will make it through life with them, either.

“Email newsletters, an old-school artifact of the web that was supposed to die along with dial-up connections, are not only still around, but very much on the march,” writes David Carr of the New York Times. And newsletters, in my experience, are not lone wolves. They overwhelm. Carr says that MailChimp, a sort of postal service for business-to-consumer emails, distributes more than 400 million of them a day. They all seem to end up in my Gmail.

The newsletters march into one’s inbox in platoons, in brigades, even divisions. Some sneak in under cover of night, waiting to ambush a subscriber as soon as he awakens. Others attack in a group formation, in the mid-morning, just when our subscriber believes he has completed his pre-lunch reading. And still others wait until the afternoon to pounce, unexpectedly, as our subscriber prepares to sip his afternoon coffee in peace. By the time he is done reading all of his newsletters, is finished sorting the missives into folders for future reference, our subscriber wonders how he has managed to complete any work at all.

The best newsletters trick you into believing that the links and images and oddities they contain are indispensable, pressing, absolutely required for a life of sophistication and depth. And yet I find that I enjoy reading newsletters in inverse proportion to their connection to my daily routine. The July 1 edition of the Writer’s Almanac, for example, included a poem by Emily Dickinson, and stories about the creation of postal ZIP codes, Walkman cassette players, and William Strunk, Jr.

I hadn’t a clue that ZIP codes and the Walkman shared a birthday with Strunk, nor that the French writer George Sand (1804-1876) produced “more than 90 novels, 35 plays, and a multivolume autobiography.” Dazzled and humbled by her productivity, I am nonetheless convinced that I could have spent my days happily ignorant of Sand’s output. That didn’t stop me, however, from clicking on the almanac as soon as it arrived. It’s one of my favorites.

My work would have been unaffected if I had ignored the picture of the solar flare to which Micah Mattix, in his excellent literary newsletter Prufrock, linked in his July 1 edition. But studying the image of the sun’s corona as seen in ultraviolet light—a swirling, dizzying, hallucinatory canvas of red, blue, greens, and purples that resembles a gigantic, spherical lava lamp—was more than a distraction. It was a pleasure, and not a totally empty one. Procrastination through newsletter browsing can be edifying: How else would I have learned that the sun regularly experiences solar indigestion, expelling super-heated jets of plasma millions of miles into space?

As the day progresses, and I make my way through the columns of newsletters, the charms of literature and the glories of the solar system give way to the minutiae of politics. The political emails are dense thickets of bullet points and press clippings, of poll numbers and ad expenditures. They never fail to darken my mood. I read them for work, and it takes work to read them. A long-time subscriber to the Hotline’s “Wake-Up Call!”, I find it increasingly difficult to pay attention to items such as—stop the presses—“In GA-10, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) endorsed businessman Mike Collins (R).” The fate of the $29 billion budget passed this week by the Pennsylvania legislature may be of great interest to some readers of the Hotline, perhaps even to some who do not live in Pennsylvania, and who are unconnected to Pennsylvania politics. It does not interest me.

Scanning the political newsletters out of a sense of professional duty, I find my eye being drawn to items unrelated to the campaign air war, web war, and ground war. Jonathan Last’s great newsletter for the Weekly Standard is an unpredictable mix of political and cultural analysis, noteworthy links, and passages from some of the best writing to appear in the magazine’s pages—and I say all this free of charge. The “Wake-Up Call’s” trivia challenge, the “This and That” section of Mark Bednar’s entertaining and informative “Morning Buzz” newsletter, the “Top Tweets” section of the PBS Newshour’s “Morning Line,” and the cultural and personal asides in Jim Geraghty’s “Morning Jolt” are far more interesting than the dreary play-by-play of House Republican caucus meetings and Chris McDaniel skullduggery, more worth one’s time than read-outs of President Obama’s latest trip to Taylor Gourmet or Shake Shack or Great Falls or the Georgetown Waterfront Park.

“Newsletters are clicking,” writes David Carr, “because readers have grown tired of the endless stream of information on the Internet.” If readers are tired of infinite amounts of reading material, they have a funny way of showing it. No one subscribes to just one newsletter. My habit started in 2010, when I signed up for “Thoughts from the Frontline,” a weekly newsletter of economic analysis by the investor John Mauldin, who is in a state of constant motion, traveling to South America, to Europe, to Asia. When, in one email, Mauldin recommended a second newsletter, Grant Williams’s “Things That Make You Go Hmmm…,” I signed up for that, too.

Four years later, I seem to have replaced “the endless stream of information on the Internet” with an endless stream of information in my inbox: In addition to the newsletters I have mentioned, I receive emails from Israel Hayom, the Times of Israel, TheTower.org, Tablet Magazine, Foreign Policy, Bill Kristol, Chris Stirewalt of Fox News Channel, Real Clear Defense, the Wall Street Journal’s “Political Diary,” Politico Playbook, Avik Roy’s “Apothecary,” Jason Hirschhorn, the Institute for the Study of War, the Cato Institute, Lifenews.comNational Journal’s “The Edge,” Commentary magazine, the 2017 Project, and, of course, the Washington Free Beacon. The Beacon also subscribes to the Spike aggregation service, which sends me hourly updates on which stories across the Internet are being shared the most. Hourly. Updates.

“List, list, O list!” cries the ghost of Hamlet’s father. So bad has my problem become that, upon finishing Carr’s piece, I promptly signed up for several of the newsletters he recommended. I couldn’t help it. The first of these new subscriptions arrived moments ago. It is called “5 Intriguing Things,” and is written by Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic. Seems promising. Especially promising, because it limits the number of intriguing things to five.

The best newsletters are digital magazines. They contain a wide range of content, they often have several departments, and the personality of their editor is apparent in every aspect. Keeping this analogy in mind, I plan to cancel some of my email subscriptions over the holiday weekend. Just as there is no reason to continue to receive a boring magazine, there is no reason to keep collecting, and promptly deleting, boring newsletters. The difference is that you can always let a magazine subscription lapse. Not so with emails.

Which newsletters will make the cut? I don’t want to hurt any feelings by writing them here. If you must know, write me an email.

And I’ll send you a list.