A Conversation with Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr
Nicholas Carr
The Shallows
The Shallows

The speakers for our Center for Renaissance Studies History of the Book lecture series are usually concerned with helping people to understand books and reading practices of the past and how those traditions have shaped the present day. On Saturday, April 14, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Nick Carr will guess at the way the present day is shaping the future of books, and specifically how modern e-books will insert themselves into the story of books and learning, in a lecture titled “The Book as Gadget: The Rise of E-Readers and E-Reading.”

Carr’s most recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Non-Fiction, explores the effects of recent technological innovations on our reading practices. The book takes seriously the premise that “a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act”; that is, that the means by which we read—in a book, on our computers, on our phones—has even more effect on how we think than what we are reading. Carr provides a succinct account of the shifts in the mediums employed for reading and writing, from clay tablets to the e-book, and cites historical instances of how the media used to read and write have affected the way they think. One example is how Nietchze’s use of an early typewriter affected the way he composed his writings.

The Shallows also delves into the realms of neurological research and cognitive science to examine the ways in which, due to our brain’s neuroplasticity—its ability to be physically altered by the ways we behave and the things we interact with in the world—the mediums we use to read literally mold the pathways and circuits in our brains. Carr demonstrates that reading on the Internet and on many popular modern electronic devices encourages us to read in a “shallow” way, skimming through multiple pieces of text to find choice bits of information, and discourages sustained deep reading. As our brains become rewired and more adept at reading shallowly, we become less able to concentrate deeply on what we read. The Shallows thus proves a cautionary tale about the intellectual abilities we may be sacrificing for the convenience of new electronic media.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Carr a few questions about his book and the topic of e-readers. I first asked whether we ultimately may end up using a mixture of online or e-reading formats and traditional books to serve different kinds of reading needs. Carr, however, is “not hopeful,” seeing the convenience of having everything in one place in a single gadget trumping concerns about different kinds of thinking that using a variety of different media would promote. He cited as an example the Obama administration’s recent push to move from paper to digital textbooks in schools. Decisions like this mean that future generations will be “forced into screen-dependency at an early age,” a phenomenon that has already, in Carr’s opinion, pushed the traditional book “from the center of culture to the margins.”

If this is true, then what of the physical experience of using a book? Working at the Newberry Library, I get to see the way people light up when they handle our books; part of what excites people who visit our collections, from scholars to members of the general public, is the physical experience of connecting with the books as direct links to people of the past. Carr responded that he thinks physical experience is losing value in our society, saying, “Those who celebrate the physicality of traditional informational goods—or of nature, for that matter—are often dismissed as nostalgists.” He added, “It seems strange that we would be so quick to accept a desiccated version of the world.”

I asked Carr about the content of books and how content is shaped by the media we use to read. In what ways may new media like texting and online posts blur the boundaries between spoken and written communication? Carr referred to a work he also cites in The Shallows, the Newberry’s Curator of Rare Books and Collection Development Paul Saenger’s study, Space Between Words. This book demonstrates how the development of spacing between words on the page during the early Middle Ages led to a shift from the common practice of reading aloud to that of reading silently, a shift that in turn changed the way people read and wrote. Carr said, “As Saenger has described, the development of a truly literary way of writing—writing that is distinct from but not disconnected from speaking—is a very recent phenomenon in human history.” In Carr’s opinion, “It’s probably the most important development in the last thousand years of civilization … if we devalue or debase that tradition, as I think we are doing, we’re going to sacrifice something very important—intellectually, aesthetically, and emotionally.”

Carr was similarly cautionary about what may remain the same as we transition into the age of e-books. Certain texts, like the Bhagavad Gita or Homer’s Odyssey, though they have been shaped and altered through different periods of history, have nonetheless retained core content relatively unchanged through shifts to different kinds of media across the ages. What may remain constant in the future? Carr said the desire for “artistic works that challenge, expand, and satisfy our intellectual and imaginative capacities” will not go away; but he still is concerned about “a particular state of mind—calm, attentive, contemplative, solitary—that is often required to get the most out of our deepest intellectual and aesthetic encounters,” that we are in danger of losing. “Lose that and we become utilitarian beings, like ants or bees,” he said. “There are many good things to be said about ants and bees, but they are not known for their appreciation of high culture.”

This reminded me of the images of beehives found in many Renaissance emblem books in the Newberry’s collections. The beehive in the Renaissance carried two common connotations. One is that suggested by Carr, of bees as industrious laborers. But the beehive could also be an emblem of knowledge. The process of the bee bringing pollen to the hive and beginning the slow, careful process of converting what was gathered into honey served as a metaphor for gathering, storing, and transforming information in the mind. As Carr suggests, the rise of the Internet and e-books in the modern age presents us with a decision. Will we use the opportunities our new technology affords to build on the past and produce honeyed results, or will we get taken in by a lot of empty buzz?

Posted by Laura Aydelotte, interim assistant director, Center for Renaissance Studies

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