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

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

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.

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