The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

I’m reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (2010, W.W. Norton & Company) and not only finding it fascinating, but oh-so true, unfortunately. For some time now I’ve noticed that I read print books differently than I once did, and it’s almost as though I’m suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder at times. I had previously put this down to multi-tasking and the way we live now in this modern world, being constantly bombarded by information and the urgent need to be “connected” far more than is necessary. It turns out, according to Carr, that with the advent of each new technology throughout history our brains have become rewired so that we compensate for the new way of taking in all this information. And this same rewiring of human brains has happened a number of times over centuries – including with the introduction of print books and silent reading that resulted.

Not only do we all read differently now, though, but the digital text also affects the way we write…

… the Web’s tendency to turn all media into social media will have a far-reaching effect on styles of reading and writing and hence on language itself. When the form of the book shifted to accommodate silent reading, one of the most important results was the development of private writing. Authors, able to assume an attentive reader, deeply engaged both intellectually and emotionally, “would come at last, and would thank them,” quickly jumped beyond the limits of social speech and began to explore a wealth of distinctly literary forms, many of which could exist only on the page. The new freedom of the private writer led, as we’ve seen, to a burst of experimentation that expanded vocabulary, extended the boundaries of syntax, and in general increased the flexibility and expressiveness of language. Now that the context of reading is again shifting, from the private page to the communal screen, authors will adapt once more. They will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the essayist Caleb Crain describes as “groupiness,” where people read mainly “for the sake of a feeling of belonging” rather than for personal enlightenment or amusement. As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style. Writing will become a means for recording chatter. Page 107

And the idea of “text” and permanence of text in print books has also changed from what we knew, and will inevitably have an effect on the way we write:

The provisional nature of digital text also promises to influence writing styles. A printed book is a finished object. Once inked onto the page, its words become indelible. The finality of the act of publishing has long instilled in the best and most conscientious writers and editors a desire, even an anxiety, to perfect the words they produce – to write with an eye and an ear toward eternity. Electronic text is impermanent. In the digital marketplace, publication becomes an ongoing process rather than a discrete event, and revision can go on indefinitely. Even after an eBook is downloaded into a networked device, it can be easily and automatically updated – just as software programs routinely are today. It seems likely that removing the sense of closure from book writing will, in time, alter writers’ attitudes toward their work. The pressure to achieve perfection will diminish, along with the artistic rigor that the pressure imposed. Page 107

By the way, and for the record – I’m reading the print version of this book that I borrowed from the library. Definitely a must-read for anyone looking for an explanation as to what is currently going on in our brains when it comes to reading and writing and why our brains may have been collectively rewired, and permanently.

And I transcribed the above quotes rather than copying/pasting…

Thanks to Eugene Stickland for recommending this book!

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2 responses

  1. eee gad! i knew there was something happening in my brain. i will definitely read this book – s l o w l y and q u i e t l y, from a paper page.

    1. And it’s been getting better the more I read. Definitely worth while reading and realizing that it’s not you specifically who is suffering from this.

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