A personal waltz in The Shallows: what the internet has done to my brain

Man with head in a cloud of WWWs and Tweets.

It's an alarming title: The Shallows. What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. But it's the work of a serious journalist and thinker—not a Luddite or cynic—and the title does ring a bell, so I'm reading it.

Carr's central premise is that (according to research) our dependence on the ubiquitous internet is literally changing the way our brains function. We're picking and pecking at information instead of reading in depth.

Appropriately, after 10 pages I've decided to savour this book rather than rush it. I keep stopping to have a little think about the way I personally read now, and whether this has changed, and if so, why. Let me share some personal insights.

Newspaper reading. I've just cancelled my subscription to a paper newspaper because I do read it differently now, and the pleasure has gone. I notice myself scanning every page as if it were a home page, darting from headline to headline, and even jumping randomly all over an article: looking, not reading. I absorb almost nothing, so obviously I remember nothing. The news is everywhere, it's unavoidable, so what am I gaining? This exasperating method of reading is comparatively new to me. It feels like the result of too much internet use, and too much work calling to me... but it might equally be a consequence of age.

Book reading. Reading a compatible book is like a marvellous dance.

My subjective experience of reading certain books is like a long, slow waltz with a partner who is in control, has a strong—maybe eccentric—personal style, and pays close attention to me, the "woman" in the partnership. I'm not talking about the content, but the sensations, the process of reading. This is social dancing, not a performance. We sweep around the floor together, frequently stopping to pause and pivot and change direction. Those are the moments when I put a book aside and muse on some point: whether I agree, whether it matches my own experience. That's a personalised, anecdotal way of thinking and learning, but it's certainly not superficial. It's just human. I found myself reading The Shallows in exactly this way. The mark of a Strauss-mode book is that I'm reluctant to read it fast, and immediately want to read it again. Other examples (for me) are Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Myoa, and anything by Proust.

Thrillers give me their own sort of cognitive thrill, as long as they're not too yucky. The experience of reading a thriller is more like Irish dancing. Think Riverdance. Vigorous, vertical, fast and furious but not travelling very far. The writer is not your partner: you're dancing/ reading alone, but you're surrounded by others who are doing precisely the same thing.

Many a writer leads you a merry little polka. The reading is jolly, rhythmic and fun. Maybe my own novels are like that for certain readers.

With many books, there's no chance of a dance. The authors stick you on a hard chair and make you sit still while you jolly well listen to them. Or like an angry auntie they drag six-year-old you through a boring warehouse, in a ruthless rush to reach their own destination. Those are the books that I'm far more reluctant to read now. For example, last week I skipped three-quarters of Globish, by Robert McCrum.

So from a population of one (myself) I deduce that I now have a wider range of reading styles than before. I do spend much of my time skimming and skating over the surface of information, because I'm a web professional. When I'm on a roll I'm astonished at how much I achieve in a day, thanks to the glory of the internet.

But I also relish the slow read and the fast linear read and the fun frivolous read.

It's the in-between material that I'm now more impatient with. I'm more selective. I no longer feel a duty to plough through every book from go to whoa. And that's a darn good thing.

So as I read the rest of The Shallows, I'm going to luxuriate in a slow, deep read. That's a nice little paradox.

I feel safe in the shallows, though I feel them lapping around my synapses. Is this smugness, blindness, normality, or a consequence of my great age? After all, I had 55 years as a happy analog reader before I ever saw the Web. Those questions will hover as I read onwards.

Image from Prospect Magazine's review of The Shallows by Evgeny Morozov


Aug 04, 2010 • Posted by Rachel McAlpine

Thanks, Carl! I can see you know exactly what I mean. And I’m very keen to hear about parallel experiences from others, so double thanks. In general, extrapolating from personal experience is a bit dangerous and certainly statistical rubbish. But now at least I know for sure I’m not the only one who appreciates slow reads all the more in the Internet era.

Aug 01, 2010 • Posted by Carl Nelson

I really enjoyed your choice of imagery when reading. Dance has so many aspects that pulls you along, guides your or rushes you through it that it’s spectacular to feel that in a reading of a book.

I also find myself skimming, skipping and looking at web content but at the same time I appreciate the long slow read more now than I think I did before I became a web professional. Having just finished two novels this week, one by Haruki Murakami (Dance Dance Dance) and Herman Hesse (Journey to the East), there is something to be said about the slow dance that draws us deeper with each note.

Great read, thank you.

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