Information Overload

One of my memorable Christmas gifts as a child was a thick paperback book called the Information Please Almanac. My grandparents gave it to me. I spent many hours reading about the population of major world cities, rainfall averages, and which method of capital punishment was used by each state. Did you know Utah used to give a condemned prisoner a choice between hanging and shooting?

I’ve always been an information sponge, especially with numbers. In recent years I’ve been fascinated by Euler’s number, eΠi, a formula which equals -1. I won’t even try to explain it here–which I can’t do without a lot of help anyway. Charles Edward White describes it this way:

The idea that these two irrational numbers should combine with an imaginary one to yield so utilitarian a result is breathtaking. It is like deconstructing a chemical necessary for life (salt) and finding that it consists of two deadly poisons (sodium and chlorine). That these three strange numbers with such diverse origins should work together to produce a result so basic to mathematics argues that there is a profound elegance or beauty built into the system.

The discovery of this number gave mathematicians the same sense of delight and wonder that would come from the discovery that three broken pieces of pottery, each made in different countries, could be fitted together to make a perfect sphere. It seemed to argue that there was a plan where no plan should be.

Because of the serendipitous elegance of this formula, a mathematics professor at MIT, an atheist, once wrote this formula on the blackboard, saying, “There is no God, but if there were, this formula would be proof of his existence.” (

The only thing I can say to that is WOW! I’ve been saying “wow” my whole life. I’ve become a collector of information–especially books and articles. My filing cabinets are jammed with papers. Downsizing my library has been very painful as space has become a problem in the last decade or so.

I just passed a milestone birthday and now there’s a new limitation on the horizon–time. Over the years I’ve picked up books and lied to myself, “I’ll read it down the road when I need it.” Some of those books are still unread. Now for the first time I’ve begun to face reality. There isn’t enough time left to meaningfully read all the unread books on my shelves. Usually I have two or three going at the same time, but there are too many books–or too little time.

This week I passed out Christmas gifts to our congregation. Mostly books, of course. Through the year I’d picked up several sales and favorite authors to give away. One of the men alerted me to what was happening when he jokingly said I was giving him a library–and he didn’t even receive the most. I actually gave one man six books for Christmas this year. Really, do I expect him to read them all? It’s a burden.

Here are some lessons I need to learn. Perhaps they will help you, too.

  1. Downsizing is good. It has been really painful to give away large numbers of my books, but I really haven’t missed most of them. Occasionally I’ve longed for one in a time of need, but usually I can google the quote I want and find it online. It has been painful to move into a much smaller house, but it’s turned out for the good. Too much stuff is bad. It makes us materialists.
  2. Prioritizing is good. We are finite creatures with finite space, finite time, and a finite ability to absorb information or develop skills. I’m not going to be able to read all my books I want to read. Instead I’ll pick which ones to read and not read. I’m never going to play the piano again as well as I did 30 years ago. But that’s OK. I can still enjoy music.
  3. Serving is good. Too much reading takes time away from serving others. We can’t both read and serve at the same time. In reality, serving doesn’t require a lot of information, just a servant’s heart. A servant’s heart is much more valuable than information. And you can’t get a servant’s heard from reading a book. Well, maybe one Book.