We’ve all had that experience — you buy a book with a fascinating premise, then soon learn that the first 1-3 chapters exhausted the main idea and the rest of the book was filler.
Nicholas Carr has recently published a book called, “The Shallows,” extending the ideas from his Atlantic cover article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” into a book-length manuscript. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if it’s one of those books that’s 1/3 robust and 2/3 fluff, but recent discussions about Carr’s ideas certainly make me wonder if the book’s main idea is even worth pursuing at all.
Carr’s argument in the Atlantic article was that the age of superficiality and distraction was changing our minds, literally, from one capable of contemplation to one seeking novelty, superficially scampering from one idea to the next, while finding it difficult to do real thought. I’ve listened to interviews with him about the book, read multiple reviews, and read Carr’s related blog posts.
But it was in a riposte where I found the most compelling argument — a sensible response by Steven Johnson at the New York Times (their “Unboxed” blog), in which he argues that while there must be a price we pay for distractedness coming from multi-tasking, Carr overlooks the benefits, neglecting to see if the sum total is an improvement:
The problem with Mr. Carr’s model is its unquestioned reverence for the slow contemplation of deep reading. . . . It’s no accident that most of the great scientific and technological innovation over the last millennium has taken place in crowded, distracting urban centers. The printed page itself encouraged those manifold connections, by allowing ideas to be stored and shared and circulated more efficiently.
Books are an interesting case in point. They represent our longstanding desire to network information — in the case of books, to create durable information packets we could share widely and possess as our own. By sharing ideas with fidelity and durability, the world changed. As Johnson offers:
One can make the case that the Enlightenment depended more on the exchange of ideas than it did on solitary, deep-focus reading.
Our transactions around books today as commercial objects leads to us filling them with fluff in order to create a doorstop big enough to justify a retail price of $24.99. But in the early days of books, thin monographs and short treatises abounded. Books were distracting, lining the walls of homes, lying around in stacks, their spines and covers calling out to people, “Read me — I’ll transport your mind to a different place.”
If reading weren’t distracting, why would we do it? We seek new ideas, new inspirations, new stimulation for our minds.
Reading, even contemplative, solitary reading, is about being distracted, as is listening to a symphony, attending a talk, or walking through a museum. How our minds process these distractions is what’s important, and lateral thinking and creative connections seem to bring us farther forward than anything I would consider to be “deep thinking.” The positive effects of serendipity and the list of “Eureka!” moments dominate the history of ideas.
Bring on the distractions (by reading Johnson’s short and interesting take on this).