I wish I was the person my Pocket reading list says I am

Read-it-later apps are used less as a practical tool than as a type of intellectual hoarding.
Read-it-later apps are used less as a practical tool than as a type of intellectual hoarding.
Image: Reuters/Olivia Harris
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In my Pocket lives a well-read person.

The app on my phone contains a virtual library of thoughtful deep dives on ISIS and Internet privacy, language and morality, ProPublica investigations and Denise Levertov’s “Annunciation.” I pick up these prizes in travels around the Internet and store them in Pocket, creating a time capsule to be opened and savored by a future self, one with exemplary taste and oodles of time. A self much improved from the person I am today, which is an individual who Pocketed a piece on the collapse of US foreign policy yet somehow found time to read, from start to finish, a Buzzfeed list called “23 Best Boozy Lemonades.”

Maybe you have an account with Pocket, or Instapaper, or Flipboard, or a reading list on your browser or Kindle. In theory, these are exceptionally useful places to store intriguing reading for more convenient times.

But I suspect a lot of people use Pocket in the way I use Pocket: less as a practical tool than a type of intellectual hoarding. It’s a place to put the ideas I’m certain I’ll make room for, someday. It’s the digital equivalent of the stacks that used to litter the homes of voracious readers in the pre-Internet era: months’ worth of The New Yorker, yellowing newspaper sections, anthologies plucked from the library book sale.

In the old days, moving or cleaning prompted a confrontation with the stacks and a choice: to keep them and the potential knowledge and beauty within, or to let them go. If you never let go, the mounting, unmanageable piles could act as a helpful signal to loved ones and yourself that you were Struggling to Prioritize and perhaps needed help.

Now that intellectual clutter is private, organized neatly into one long, endless scroll. Just like the acquaintances from high school who manage to keep a toehold on your consciousness through your Facebook feed, Pocket allows us to continue the fantasy that we never have to say goodbye to anything, that we can be anyone, and that in the future, we will always have more time.

Some weeks ago, I sat in a chair for three hours, opened a Pocket fat with words, and started to read them. I read about rural economies and fancy German appliances, about faith and AI and the fall of Aleppo. Some articles were beautiful and interesting and some were interesting but not beautiful and some I abandoned partway through, because they were about subjects that interested me once but no longer do. We are imperfect judges of our future selves’ desires. I read all these things and felt a little smarter, but nowhere near as smart as the person I hoped I’d be after reading all these things. Mostly I wondered what, exactly, I had been waiting for.

I sat in this chair as I do every eight weeks, with a needle in my arm dispensing 300 milligrams of infliximab, the anti-inflammatory drug I take for Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune condition that manifests in patients in many different ways. In my case the disease rarely bothers me, except for one time when it almost killed me, and now it just kind of lurks around like a surly roommate with a volatile past.

This drug, also, is a bet on the future. To treat a chronic illness is to gamble with time, wagering hours in treatment rooms now in the hopes of winning more days in the future than our inflamed or malignant cells would give us. Holding out my arm for the needle is in some ways as naively optimistic an act as tapping the little pink Pocket icon instead of taking the time to read. They’re both confident assertions that there are days ahead, days that are mine to possess, and I know who I’ll want to be when they arrive.

In other ways, the needle renders that fantasy absurd. Stories can end abruptly, with our work unfinished. “I am forced to see my things for what they are: unmade decisions, unfulfilled promises and unlikely ambitions,” Emily Bobrow wrote of her household possessions, in an 1843 essay I read in Pocket that day. We are so many different people in the course of our days, all of them desperate not to disappoint the person we will be on our last one. If there is anyone or anything you believe you have to be, there is no choice but to be it now.

I didn’t finish everything in my Pocket that day. I don’t believe I ever will. My ambitions are greater than my abilities. There will be things left on the list until my own end, when I have to reckon with all the selves I never was and everything I never understood. In the meantime, I drop things in my Pocket. I keep my eyes ahead.