Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

W.W. Norton, c2010.

The fact that I “read” this book by listening to the audio version on my iPhone, which played while doing other things - driving, walking, performing mundane tasks etc. is perhaps telling about my ability to concentrate and my brain’s need for stimulation.  I definitely feel that my brain has changed through usage of the Internet - which I use every day at work and at home (and sometimes at points in between). 

I appreciate that this book doesn’t seek to indict the Internet or demand that we “unplug.”  It instead outlines how our brains are changing, whether that be for good or ill.  It also describes a number of other paradigm shifts that have occurred throughout human history, where our thought processes and way of thinking about things has changed.  When I ran this book at our November 2011 Nonfiction Book Club meeting, the members were ambivalent about such changes - some welcomed it, and some took a measure of caution from it, but no one decreed that the Internet must be shut off. 

For myself, I notice that I have a hard time reading long-form magazine articles or essays, where my eyes keep bouncing to the larger-font captions and call-out boxes.  I skim through articles and concentrate on topics of particular interest to me.  I enjoy reading web articles and blogs (if they aren’t too long), and all the clicking and linking that the web allows.  Despite this, I also enjoy sitting down with a long book for hours at a time.  I am just as happy with an eBook read on my iPhone or other eReading device as I am with a print book.  I don’t know why this doesn’t parlay to magazine articles though. 

I am particularly interested in any comments that people may have as to the severity of this “crisis.”  The discussion questions below are designed to help the reader clarify their opinions about the points raised by this book. 

  1. Considering how much (or how little) you use the internet, have you noticed any changes in your ability to concentrate?
  2. Are we controlled by our tools?
  3. How concerned are you by the amount of different things that you can now do online, or with technology in general?
  4. How has your relationship to books changed in your lifetime? 
  5. “I go online for a lot of things, but I also enjoy sitting in a comfy chair with a good book.” Is this statement true for you?  If books go more and more online, would you miss the print codex?
  6. How does human memory differ from computer memory?  How much of a memory’s context do you recall?  (When you hear a favourite piece of music, do you remember what you were doing the last time you listened to it?)
  7. The human brain can’t ever be full.  Do we replace old memories with new ones, or is everything integrated somehow?
  8. Do you feel that we are in the process of losing some fundamental quality of humanness?
  9. The author points to studies showing that helpful computer programs interfere with problem solving.  Do you think that eventually our brains will adapt to this new mode of thinking?  Will our brain adapt in a good way?
  10. Do we entrust tasks to a computer that actually demand wisdom? 


  1. I haven't read the book, so I'll only observe that reading good blogs, which deliver content in short pieces, has made me intolerant of puffed-up monographs. In the era I grew up in - pre-Internet, post-TV - there were only two units of nonfiction content: the long-form magazine piece, and the book-length monograph. Of these two, the latter paid authors much more. Accordingly, many, many pieces with only enough ideas in them to be a magazine piece were turned into books. In the Internet era, a piece of writing published on the Web can be as long or short as is necessary to convey the idea at hand. From here on out, something should only be published as a book if it merits discussion at that length. Many things don't; the rise of blogs, with short-form content, is a Good Thing, as many ideas and developments only require short-form presentation.

  2. I have noticed a big change in my ability to concentrate. Whether that is related to age or internet/computer activity is unclear. But I do recognize that I now find it more difficult to "commit" to a magazine or book. A newspaper article is more manageable and for longer form story telling I have recently become a fan of comics and graphic novels. Most of my physical book reading has come from reading with my son over the past 7 years. And as he happened to be a very good reader very early, I ended up not being the reader full-time for him much sooner than expected. Instead I find joy and fulfillment in being one doorway to his discovery of new and old books. He has a staggering capacity to read well beyond his years and ALSO be very computer oriented and tech savvy. Which is something I don't see in myself any longer.