| Arts & Culture
Language When the News Is Too Much, I Read It Backward
The tidy linearity we’re used to leaves little room for revolution.
Every morning, I try to read the news. The goal seems too self-explanatory to interrogate, but if I had to go beyond the basics (like the desire to be an informed and engaged member of society), I’d say I’ve always liked language. As a child, when I finished all the books I had, I’d reluctantly part with the off-kilter realties in Roald Dahl’s short stories, or the Cheetah Girls’ latest antics, then pick up my brother’s magazines and read about things that didn’t matter to me, like basketball. But when I finished the magazines, I rarely bothered with the next available thing: our father’s newspapers. They seemed somber and stiff, with careful columns of text and hierarchical front pages. Even worse, the reporters all wrote in the same style. My preference was for fiction and all of its freedoms. Maybe I need the news now to repent for something my father never saw as sinful.
Every morning, my father, the managing editor of a newspaper, made the news fit to print. When my brother and I were in elementary and middle school, sometimes Dad had to take us to the newsroom on weekends. The desks were mostly bare but the news barreled in at its regular pace—swift, but still slower than today’s. We kids were left to our own devices, sometimes literally. We had handheld games, reading material, money for the vending machines, halls to wander, spare computers to play on. And depending on our moods, each other.
When I wasn’t reading about Narnia, I visited the mystical room downstairs, where the newspapers were printed on-site and you had to yell to be heard over the whirring of the behemoth machinery spitting ink. The smell of it was too-tart berries bursting with bitterness that warned of poison if you took a taste. The metal monsters spun enormous spools of what looked like the butcher paper in the back of my art classroom, blown out of proportion and repurposed for something more pressing than children’s scribblings. In another corner of the room, perfect polygons came off the assembly line, warm to the touch and stacked in a huddle.
These were the safe shapes I might try to refold into their original tidy glory, on weekend mornings when my father got to stay home, with his coffee and crossword puzzle at the kitchen table and our cold cereal and cartoons and couch cushions in the next room. But in the printing room, the news seemed dangerous. If I got too close, if I fell into its automatic path, it could crush and stain me, maybe pause to scrape my remains, and then get back to it. Because unlike the novels I always had my nose in, the news never ended.
These days, the least I can do is keep up with the basics by way of daily newsletters and general-interest podcasts. But sometimes I don’t have the time or mental space for the basics. Maybe I’m dealing with something in my personal life, or I’ve gone down a rabbit hole researching the history of self-trepanation. Then news glares at me, unread in my inbox, unlistened to in my queue. The anxiety and guilt are nauseating. It’s the same feeling I have when I am late to arrive somewhere and leave someone else waiting. I should be more considerate. I should make time for the news no matter what. For other people. For the world. I can fix this. When this happens, I filter my inbox by unread, newest to oldest. I begin with today before wading backward in time.
Some people want the end first. They read poetry backward . Flip to the last line, or page, or chapter (!) of a novel . Fast-forward to the end of a Tarantino scene to brace for when the bullet will hit . Check if the dog is going to die . Seek out spoilers and are happier for it . Some stories cut right to it and spoil themselves. There are novels like They Both Die at the End and Skippy Dies . Not to mention that old play about the Italian teenagers. But such warnings are only possible in fiction.
Some stories cut right to it and spoil themselves.
In the essay “ When a Story Is Best Told Backwards ,” Samantha Harvey argues that we desire to know what comes next because cause and effect is how we understand the world. It’s “our very experience of living.” Yet she chose to write her novel The Western Wind in reverse chronology. The backward narrative, she concedes, “isn’t alive with possibility, as with most stories, but with impossibility. There is no future available; there might be hope, but nowhere for that hope to land and take seed.” Is inevitability, then, the enemy of imagination? Can “What next?” and “What if?” coexist, especially in nonfiction?
The printing room in my father’s office building literally made the news in such a way that you’d be forgiven for thinking the news itself was rigid, mechanical. From there, it’s an easy leap to believing the myths of objectivity in journalism or science or technology or anything human. Nothing we do is impartial or faultless. We make the machines and we make the news and we make mistakes.
In addition to reporting what has happened already, the news constantly guesses what will happen next: when the storm will hit and how hard, who will win the game and by how much, what the trial verdict will be and how long the sentence. The news is often, but not always, right. There’s more at stake than being correct. There’s research suggesting that election forecasting may lower voter turnout. Other events may be susceptible to similar unintended consequences of coverage.
This is where I get stuck. I can’t account for how much of what happens happens because conforming to a narrative’s familiar contours is the most convenient choice. The tidy linearity we’re used to leaves little room for revolution. The media, like any other thinking creature, is prone to following its own trains of thought to their destinations. If the stories we tell ourselves are too much like the stories we’ve already told ourselves, then new approaches to narrative have the radical potential to change everything. Today’s news will be the next decade’s history. So how should we shape it?
The lesson I learn each time I read the news from newest to slightly less new is that we don’t know shit about shit. Reading the news backward like this is a master class in imagination. It makes space for the question Remember when the conclusions weren’t forgone? It may not be much. But any modicum of rebellion feels worthy when we need a revolution, when we can no longer beg and hope for reform. Moving backward can be an indispensable tool for those who have forgotten to ask not why things are this way, but why we have conceded that they have to be.
Reading the news backward is a master class in imagination.
The moment when the new and now becomes history is impossible to pin down or predict. But every piece of news we record reminds us of its potential to persist across history. The narrator of Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida’s autobiographically inspired novel That Hair looks through old photographs and finds scenes of historical monuments and personal minutiae from days past. We can’t be certain what will matter in the future, so we place as many bets as we can:
“as though dropping an ice cream on the ground, pulling hair back into a ponytail for a passport photo, or taking apart a bike were now our Ksar el-Kebir, our own siege of Lisbon, our transatlantic crossing, our Tarrafal, even as sieges, crossings, concentration camps, and battles that we never saw coming make history.”
History is full of surprises. But even if we could see the important parts coming, and know which pieces and versions of the past will stay with us until the end of humanity, would that make for a better world in the meantime? Today, we have more information and technology than ever, but if all of human history is one long story, I worry that for all our progress, we could still be better at telling it.
Many rules of old-school journalism still hold, as if we already know what’s best. Use easy-to-understand language. Be objective—or acknowledge when you can’t be. Lead with the most important, basic information and fill in the details as you go. But sometimes the people you’re writing about and the people you’re writing for use different vernacular. Sometimes your point of view is just as important as the facts. Sometimes it’s more effective to be specific before you get general.
Part of me feels ridiculous questioning the tenets of journalism—a discipline I deeply admire. I’m almost afraid to ask if the news is suited for creative writing exercises, when there’s already so much at stake. But there’s too much at stake to not try something new, in form, and content, and source, in subject and audience and author.
In Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions , the author recounts her time working as a translator for Spanish-speaking children trapped in the bureaucracy of New York City’s federal immigration court. She’s tasked with documenting the stories of other peoples’ immigrations. After her work is done, more often than not, she cannot know the stories’ endings, no matter how badly she craves closure. Yet her workdays come to their individual finales. She goes home and tells her daughters stories of immigration, including her own (from Mexico to the United States). Her children want for endings too, but she has no endings to give. At least not yet.
She writes, “There are things that can only be understood retrospectively, when many years have passed and the story has ended. In the meantime, while the story continues, the only thing to do is tell it over and over again as it develops, bifurcates, knots around itself. And it must be told, because before anything can be understood, it has to be narrated many times, in many different words and from many different angles, by many different minds.”
It turns out that reading the news backward is not going to be enough to change the world and the stories we use to make sense of it. What of the things that never make the news at all? Things never known are necessarily forgotten—not always out of malice or apathy, and often out of necessity. Each time I ignore the news, or make it wait, I exert my privilege over each thing I can be ignorant of—a controversy in a school district where I’ll never send the kids I don’t have, the poison in water I’ll never taste, a coup in a country I may never visit or meet someone from—each thing I feel comfortable overlooking because it’s easier to believe, for the moment, that it is none of my concern.
Then there are things I don’t even know I’m neglecting, the things newsmakers deliberately disappear. In these cases, we can only rely on ourselves to make sure news has other ways of getting around: grapevines that bind individual memories into communal memories and shared institutions, histories, and records. On the days that I skip the news, some news, if not the news, always finds me. Through conversations and push notifications and what I see firsthand when I go outside. I just have to wade through without sinking in the uncertainty of whether it will even matter in the long run.
In real life, there’s no guarantee that something interesting or good or anything at all is going to happen next. Sometimes it feels like you’re writing the story and sometimes you feel like a character at the mercy of another creator. But no matter your role, there’s no escaping narrative. So take whatever chances you can to shift the narrative you’re in, to build a different monument to history, to switch up the genre or turn a trope on its head, to shift the point of view to a different character. Change something in just the right way and it might become a whole new story.
My father doesn’t work for a newspaper anymore. He retired as an executive editor, and earlier than expected, because the way people consumed the news was changing. Why should I feel guilty about missing a story or two hundred when the news couldn’t keep its own promises? Just when I think I’m caught up, my inbox and my feed automatically refresh. There is always something new to read. Sometimes I let it wait. Sometimes I wander elsewhere. Next message. Previous message. Back to top. Refresh. Update. Minimize. New window. I still don’t know when to walk away from a story, when to return to it, when to find a different way to tell it. I still don’t know how much of this I’ll learn too late.