Book Review – The Shallows

Book Review
The Shallows
By Nicholas Carr

Some good books get you thinking, they set you to talking and discussing. Other good books transport you. Still others are tomes of knowledge. A good friend of mine and I have been conversing about reading a bit lately. I have a complicated history with reading. My friend’s relationship to it is much more straightforward, but still complicated. What we can both agree on is that reading is somewhat unnatural, somewhat hard, and extremely satisfying.

One reason it has been top of mind for me is reading The Shallows. Carr starts by bringing up the history of reading, and how people reacted to it over the centuries. Practices or technologies we take for granted – like silent reading, printed books, the typewriter, the word processor – were revolutionary in their days. So is the Internet. There are always proponents and detractors. At the introduction, Carr seems to take a very neutral stance, in neither camp.

The Shallows is a journey rather than a revelation. It is a researched argument that the Internet is changing how we think. In the same way that Marshal McLuhan tells us that the medium and the message are as intertwined as lovers’ legs, so it is with the Internet. Carr goes a little further to describe that the medium actually changes our brains. So when he says this, he is really saying it is changing how our brains work and therefore is literally changing how we think.

I really enjoyed reading about the science. I am not a scientist, so I appreciate how he crafts his chapters and prose. It was the right level of detail. He doesn’t write to impress, but to explain. Others for whom the technology is old news might find it a bit too easy. For me it was just right. The argument; our brains are remarkably plastic. Our brains crave stimulus, and adapt to it.  I’m sure you’ve heard about how trauma patients can rewire speech centers, or motor function. Scratch a boys nose after he lost an arm and he feels it on his phantom pinky because the brain is rewiring the neurons.

Carr introduces research that shows that brains of readers are different from those who can’t read. Not just language but reasoning and memory formation. Even the language you learn to read influences your thinking. The way the brain is wired is differently for Chinese, which is pictographic, vs. English, which is phonetic. Furthermore, the brain then wants to solidify those new pathways once the new usage is established. We can make a concerted effort to return to the old pathways, but it is hard. Before reading there was the oral tradition. People had to memorize what seem like impossibly long stories. The Iliad and the Odyssey. But we can do it, too. Remember Josh Foer, the participative journalist who won the US memory championship.

The way we read the Internet is different, however. We skim. We don’t retain. We are constantly connected. If we want data, we can get it, instantly. The greatest encyclopedia the world has ever known, the Great Library of Alexandria of our day is at our fingertips at any time for anyone who is connected. So… We get distracted. We don’t have to think deeply, so we don’t. Long reading is deep reading, so skimming is the opposite.

There is much more, of course. I sum up some of what I most enjoyed and comes to mind. It was a page turner. I was hoping that Carr wouldn’t conclude that the Internet was bad for us, but in the end, it seemed like he was taking a reactionary stance, “It’s said, the Web allows us to devote more time to creative thought. But the parallel is flawed… The Web… places more pressure on our working memory, not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas… The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.”

It is a well reasoned argument, but smacks of, “when I was a kid…” kind of logic. I don’t disagree, fundamentally. The written word is a technology of forgetfulness. So is TV. So is the Internet. So what? Tweets are not the end of the essay any more than blogs are the end of books, or radio is the end of live music, or TV is the end of movies, or movies are the end of live theater.
Life is change, so roll with it.

The Shallows made me think about my own reading habits. I found myself pleasantly agreeing and disagreeing throughout the book. Despite my disagreement, perhaps because of it, it was a good read.

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5 thoughts on “Book Review – The Shallows

  1. Hmmm.

    I’ve been eyeballing this book with interest, but also with suspicion. It’s self-evident that relying on the Web changes how we think. Just the ability to casually follow upon an idle “I wonder if …” is world changing. I’m intrigued by the science, but I’m not impressed by the doomsaying; all it really means is that the future will be different. “Change is the essential process of all existence”, right?

    I seem to remember an analogous debate in our youths about calculators and mathematical ability.

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    • JT, Interestingly, Carr brings up the calculator argument, too. You could argue that you don’t need to know the nuts and bolts of the math, you just need to know how to use the results. There is something to that. When I was studying for the GMATs to get into b-school, most of the math was like that. Not solving the math, but solving the problem. I believe that knowing the underlying math will help you better solve the problem, but then again, I am from an earlier generation, too. And also, my goal is not to be a mathematician (so what does that say about how many mathematicians we will have in 20 years? I dunno).

      Carr proves to my satisfaction that the Internet _is_ changing us. Reading changes how we think. I don’t think that he is doomsaying, though. He is taking a stance, which is brave in some ways. He could easily have ended in a much safer, wishy-washy, “we’ll see in 20 years when the results are in (like I did above).”

      Still, good or bad, pining or not, the journey was fun. The fact that I disagree with the conclusion – and I agree with your point re: Change is the essential process – doesn’t detract from the journey. And disagreeing kind of made it more fun.

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  2. I teach this to my Freshmen every year and it’s totally polarizing. If you’re interested in further reading on the subject, check out Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies. It’s more of the same thought, but a little more prosaic. Either way, thanks for sharing!

    If you’re ever interested in some great book reviews and musings, be sure to follow! Thanks!!!

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    • Book Guy,
      Yes! I can totally understand the polarizing effect. I had arguments internally as I read the book, so I can totally imagine your classes. And thanks for the recommendation, both for the book and the reviews. I will check them out.

      Liked by 1 person

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