The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Acknowledging that the rest of my life, especially my working life, is likely to involve much interaction with the on-line world, I would like to share my appreciation of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr:

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The December/January 2015 issue of Books and Culture included a review of Nicholas Carr’s latest book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. It reminded me that I had yet to get to The Shallows and that needed to be remedied.

Chapter 4, “The Deepening Page,” on the history of printing and books, is worth the price of admission. In it Carr cites the Wallace Stevens poem, The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm as describing the concept of deep reading. Please allow an additional excerpt:

The bond between book reader and writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer’s work. It gives the author the confidence to explore new forms of expression, to blaze difficult and demanding paths of thought, to venture into uncharted and sometimes hazardous territory. “All great men have written proudly, nor cared to explain,” said Emerson. “They knew that the intelligent reader would come at last, and would thank them.

Our rich literary tradition is unthinkable without the intimate exchanges that take place between the reader and writer within the crucible of a book. After Gutenberg’s invention, the bounds of language expanded rapidly as writers, competing for the eyes of ever more sophisticated and demanding readers, strived to express ideas and emotions with superior clarity, elegance, and originality. The vocabulary of the English language, once limited to just a few thousand words, expanded to upwards of a million words as books proliferated. Many of the new words encapsulated abstract concepts that simply hadn’t existed before. Writers experimented with syntax and diction, opening new pathways of thought and imagination. Readers eagerly traveled down those pathways, becoming adept at following fluid, elaborate, and idiosyncratic prose and verse. The ideas that writers could express and readers could interpret became more complex and subtle, as arguments found their way linearly across many pages of text. As language expanded, consciousness deepened.

The deepening extended beyond the page. It’s no exaggeration to say that the writing and reading of books enhanced and refined people’s experience of life and of nature. “The remarkable virtuosity displayed by new literary artists who managed to counterfeit taste, touch, smell, or sound in mere words required a heightened awareness and closer observation of sensory experience that was passed on in turn to the reader,” writes Eisenstein. Like painters and composers, writers were able “to alter perception” in a way “that enriched rather than stunted sensuous response to external stimuli, expanded rather than contracted sympathetic response to the varieties of human experience.” The words in books didn’t just strengthen people’s ability to think abstractly; they enriched people’s experience of the physical world, the world outside the book.

Beyond his insights on the value of reading ink-on-paper literature, Carr’s observations on the Internet and memory, on multitasking versus focused attention to a single task, and related subjects are well worth the investment of time.

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