Slow reading

Important book of the day – The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.


No doubt the connectivity and other features of e-books will bring new delights and diversions. We may even, as Kelly suggests, come to see digitization as a liberating act, a way of freeing text from the page. But the cost will be a further weakening, if not a final severing, of the intimate intellectual attachment between the lone writer and the lone reader. The practice of deep reading that became popular in the wake of Gutenberg’s invention, in which “the quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind,” will continue to fade, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite. We will, in other words, revert to the historical norm. As a group of Northwestern University professors wrote in a 2005 article in the Annual Review of Sociology, the recent changes in our reading habits suggest that the “era of mass [book] reading” was a brief “anomaly” in our intellectual history: “We are now seeing such reading return to its formal social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class.” The question that remains to be answered, they went on, is whether that reading class will have the “power and prestige associated with an increasingly rare form of cultural capital” or will be viewed as the eccentric practitioners of “an increasingly arcane hobby.” —The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr

A young acquaintance who had been an English major, when I asked her what she was reading, replied: “You mean linear reading? Like when you read a book from start to finish?”  –Jonathan Franzen, Why Bother? an essay from the book How to be Alone

Some books have a tendency to haunt.  They stick to me long after I’ve read them, and I compulsively begin to tell people the anecdotes they contain at dinner tables and in cars.  “But taxi drivers have a larger part of the brain that visualizes the road!”  “Did you know deep reading hasn’t always been a part of various societies’ popular cultures?”  These tidbits of info floating in my mind are thanks to Nicholas Carr, who has some serious business with our brains and the internet.

I’ve felt the internet’s impact on novels, and especially been aware of it as of late.  I realize it is partly just a trend, but so many popular fiction novels aren’t linear anymore.  As with the internet, they’re hopping from place to place or time to time or narrator to narrator.  Some non-linear novels are great, but I do want to pause and ask – why are we, as a society, writing like this?  Why do we all want to read books which use this single literary device, the non-linear narrative?  What about settling in with a more traditional book, which plays out start to finish and beginning to end, has lost its appeal?  Nicholas Carr has the answer to this question in The Shallows.

The Shallows website