Last week I was very pleased to get hold of a copy of Nick Carr's new book The Shallows just in time for a long train journey. Great. I'd have time and space to really absorb it without distraction. The reality, however, was rather different, because for the first time I became acutely aware that it was actually the book itself that was distracting me from the real world. This is how it happened.
The flyleaf of The Shallows, subtitled 'How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember' states that the book is a 'revelatory reminder of how far the internet has become enmeshed in our daily existence and is affecting the way we think'. Carr spends the first hundred pages or so outlining the history of writing and reading along with a summary of recent neuroscience research.
It was an enjoyable survey but as I read I was also aware that something was really nagging at me. It was a beautiful late summer afternoon as my train wound its way south through the English Midlands, but I wasn't seeing any of it because, as they say, I had my nose in a book. Green meadows and golden fields passed along my peripheral vision in a moving ribbon of countryside but I didn't really absorb the view because I was reading a book about how distracting computers can be. In one sense you might say that I was proving Carr's point that the wired condition makes it difficult to focus any more, but in another sense I ask myself whether that really matters. Early in the book, Carr quotes a brief aside by Duke University Professor Kate Hayles about the reading habits of her students, but I don't think he refers to her work on hyper and deep attention in which she notes that "it is not far-fetched to imagine that the trend toward hyper attention represents the brain’s cultural co-evolution in coordination with high-speed, information-intensive, and rapidly changing environments that make flexible alternation of tasks, quick processing of multiple information streams, and low thresholds for boredom more adaptive than a preference for concentrating on a single object to the exclusion of external stimuli."
This was my problem. I wanted to read The Shallows. I was enjoying reading it. But I was acutely aware that I was missing what was going on outside that narrow range of vision. Eventually I realised that I wished I'd bought it as an audiobook so I could listen whilst doing other things, rather than be confined to a reading posture for hours on end.
As we passed through Basingstoke, I finally closed the volume I'd been leaning over for three hours, took out my iPhone and earplugs, and tuned to my collection of podcasts. While I listened to an episode of The Forum, I checked my email now and then. Beyond the train window, rabbits came out to feed. People walked their dogs through meadows. Roads began to fill up with rush-hour cars, and early evening lights shone in the distance. With all this going on simultaneously, I finally felt like I was back in the world again.
Postcript: I'm looking forward to finishing The Shallows very soon but admit I am somewhat bemused by the fact that it was this, of all books, which for the first time jolted in me a real sense of dissatisfaction with print.