PDF alibi-syndrome

A bunch of small brown mushrooms growing on grass

I spotted a comment from someone on LinkedIn the other day sharing guilt at having bought another book when a whole pile of them that he’d previously bought remained unread.

The Japanese have a word for this: Tsundoku – the “stockpiling of books” that one will never read.

This relates to something else I’ve come across that the academic Pat Thompson refers to as “PDF alibi-syndrome“. Prompted by reading advice from the writer Umberto Eco, she realised she was downloading PDFs “in the vain hope that one day [she would] get around to reading them”.

Eco was writing in the 70s and referring to photocopies, but his point stands, and the situation in the digital age is probably worse.

“A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labour he (sic) exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them. This sort of vertigo of accumulation, a neo-capitalism of information, happens to many. Defend yourself from this trap; as soon as you have the photocopy, read it and annotate it immediately.”

From ‘How to write a thesis‘ by Umberto Eco

Thompson had succumbed to this trap of feeling that if she owned this information, then she had achieved something: “I own, therefore I have read.”

This was shared with me by my friend and occasional colleague Laura Patsko who made the philosophical point in one of our conversations that (to paraphrase) “we don’t necessarily buy the books because we want to read them, we want to have read them.”

I think this is such an excellent point. There’s something about just expressing it this way that clearly demonstrates, to me, what this is all about.

It relates to a person we want ourselves to be; our imagined future, ‘better’ self. We want to be the person who has read that book and has learned from it. We now ‘possess’ that knowledge.

This is the same for other things that we see as a means of developing – bettering ourselves – or however you want to put it.

We buy books that we add to a dusty pile. We bookmark articles or download PDFs and we don’t read them. We start online courses and then drop out. We register for supposedly helpful productivity apps we want to use, but don’t. We start habits and fail to keep going.

There is a whole range of things we do to better ourselves, and this could be personally or professionally, but for the most part, we want to have done the thing, we don’t want to do it. We see the future and want to be there without doing the work to get there.

For me, there’s often an element of impatience, particularly in the sense of professional, or career, development. I can see a person and think “I want to do what they do” or I see a job role advertised and think “I want to be the kind of person who could confidently apply for that job”.

But then there’s work to do.

This is something I’ve learned about myself over time and try to work on. I want lots of things and I want them now! I like to feel the sense of progression, of moving somewhere. I get bored easily and I enjoy a challenge.

So now I try to focus on a few things to work on, rather than everything at once. It isn’t easy, but I’m trying.

I’m trying to read one book at a time, to stop experimenting with too many apps, to focus on learning one skill at a time, to do one course at a time. To be less impatient, more realistic and mindful of appreciating the learning journey.

Digital discovery

My discovery of the week is the More to That site which I came across thanks to someone sharing this particular post: Knowledge is not a Thing.

Lawrence Yeo – writer, illustrator, and storyteller – aims to “take everything I’ve learned about the human condition, and condense it into a format that is clear, digestible, and memorable.”

It’s an extremely well-written, beautifully illustrated and thought-provoking site that I recommend checking out.


Thanks for reading! If you’ve got any thoughts on this post, I’d love to read them. Let me know below.

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