Nicholas Carr’s Shallows, and the Death of the Book

by Russell Arben Fox on May 19, 2010 · 9 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Short,Writers & Poets

I just completed Nicholas Carr’s excellent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, and–because that’s the sort of person I am–I couldn’t resist writing a review-essay on the book. There is, to be sure, a kind of crazy hypocrisy in writing at length online about a book whose primary argument is that there are serious drawbacks to spending so much time online…but I think it was worth doing. In particular, I think the readers of Front Porch Republic might find themselves nodding along with much of Carr’s argument, as it focuses on the very real–both neurological as well sociological–negative consequences for human thought, memory, and community which the frenzied, instantaneous, distracting, superficial world of hyperlinks and Google searches poses for all of us. And moreover, there is this anecdote which causes Carr to tear his hair out, right at the start of the book:

For some people, the very idea of reading a book has come to seem old-fashioned, maybe even a little silly–like sewing your own shirts or butchering your own meat. “I don’t read books,” says Joe O’Shea, former president of the student body at Florida State University and a 2008 recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship. “I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly.” O’Shea, a philosophy major, doesn’t see any reason to plow through chapters of text when it takes but a minute or two to cherry-pick the pertinent passages using Google Book Search. “Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “It’s not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web.” As soon as you learn to be “a skilled hunter” online, he argues, books become superfluous. (pp. 6-7)

Since one of the things I most value about this site is being able to read and argue about ideas alongside people who really do sew their own shirts and butcher their own meat–to say nothing of read books cover to cover!–it seems to me that FPR ought to very much be in Nicholas Carr’s corner on this one. So do give the book (and, if you are so inclined, my thoughts on it) a look; it may give you some important supporting arguments next time your child, or your student, comes to you saying that if it isn’t on Wikipedia, they don’t want to know about it.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Steve K. May 19, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Good grief, a Rhodes scholar?

avatar WmO'H May 19, 2010 at 8:43 pm

I am literally sputtering with anger. I couldn’t even get a Rhodes interview and this knucklehead is a winner.

Good grief indeed.

avatar Matthew Gerken May 20, 2010 at 12:05 am

Disappointed, but not surprised. Though the sample size of Rhodes Scholars (and winners of similar fellowships) I know is small, I can’t help but feel that those things are almost entirely about your ability to sell yourself, both in paper and in interviews. And I mean “sell” with all the weight attached to that word. They are far from the most brilliant people I know, but among the most slick.

avatar Cecelia May 20, 2010 at 12:25 am

Someone – whose name I of course forget – said the internet is the greatest tool for anarchy ever invented. We have unleashed it upon the world with no idea what it’s consequences might be.

Well – Mr. O’Shea is clearly one of those consequences – Lord help us.

avatar Rob G May 20, 2010 at 4:46 am

Note O’Shea’s implication that the only reason to read is to get information. No pleasure in the act itself, no enjoyment of a writer’s style, etc. It’s like a new manifestation of the modern spirit of acquisitiveness — the attempt to get as much as I can while doing as little as possible — in which information is the sought out acquisition instead of money and “things.”

It’s Guenon’s “reign of quantity” applied to knowledge, and is quite chilling. Who was it who said that he didn’t trust anyone who didn’t read poetry? This is the same deal — no development of the moral imagination, and these people going into various sorts of leadership…yikes.

avatar Groby May 21, 2010 at 6:39 am

Actually, Rob, it’s worse than that — it’s *only* people like this going into *any* kind of leadership … double-yikes.

avatar Carl Scott May 22, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Assuming Joe O’Shea isn’t lying, the logical conclusion is:

A) EVERY FSU PROFESSOR WHO GAVE JOE O’SHEA ANY GRADE ABOVE A “C” SHALL BE DOCKED 20% OF THEIR PAY THIS YEAR.

B) IF SAID FSU PROFESSORS WERE RATED HIGHLY FAVORABLY BY JOE O’SHEA IN HIS TEACHER EVALUATIONS (easily determined with handwriting analysis) AN ADDITIONAL 20% OF THEIR PAY WILL BE DOCKED.

C) THE FSU PHILOSOPHY DEPARTMENT SHALL BE DISBANDED AND ITS PROFESSORS REASSIGNED TO A NEW ‘METAPHYSICAL DATABASE MANAGEMENT’ SECTION OF THE COMPUTER SCIENCE DEPARTMENT.

D) IF FSU HAS NOT ISSUED A FORMAL AND WIDELY-DISPERSED APOLOGY FOR GRADUATING JOE O’SHEA WITH RHODES-WORTHY MARKS AS OF MAY 22, 2010, ALL OF FSU’S SENIOR-LEVEL ADMINISTRATORS SHALL BE FIRED.

E) FSU SHALL ARRANGE WITH RELEVANT COMMUNICATIONS COMPANIES TO SUSPEND ALL NON-ADMINISTRATIVE/EMERGENCY INTERNET ACCESS EACH AND EVERY TUESDAY. A POWERFUL SIGNAL EMITTED FROM THE BELL TOWER WILL DISABLE RECEPTION BY ALL CELL-PHONES AND SIMILAR DEVICES. TUESDAY AT FSU SHALL HENCEFORTH BE CALLED “JOE O’SHEA’S DAY.”

Don’t get me wrong–I can see myself in a weak moment giving a Joe O’Shea higher than a C, but this requires stern measures.

avatar Jason Peters May 23, 2010 at 8:33 am
avatar Charles Fleeman September 3, 2010 at 11:26 am

Boy oh boy, Google Books doesn’t even show a whole book, and often deletes the most important parts to preserve a marketplace. Given that, it’s hard to see how O’Shea’s efficiency approach to education can develop a mind that isn’t the product of editorialists and sensors. That’s why whole books, or at least having access to whole books is important. I want to decide what to read and what to skip…

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