At the end of last year, Slate published its “Year of Outrage“—a series of essays contemplating the endless churn of transient media stories and subsequent outrage.
It also reiterated a long-standing suspicion that the internet has shortened our attention spans and made us more frivolous and foolish. The internet, we fear, is robbing us of deep thought; it’s turning us into facile meme spouters and skimming link clickers.
That’s what Nicholas Carr argued five years ago in his (somewhat ironically) much-memed book The Shallows, and we’ve only become more obsessively superficial since. Social media encourages us to tweet knowledge in 140 character bursts, turning complex tapestries of ideas into easily digested nuggets: lol, u mad Carr?
“Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy,” Carr wrote. “That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do… The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” The internet has changed our brains so we no longer read immersively; the web is making us dumb.
Or at least, I presume that’s the argument of The Shallows. I haven’t actually read the book, though I skimmed Carr’s Atlantic article on which it’s based (that’s where I got the quotes). Carr would, presumably, see this flagrant failure to read his thesis as a demonstration of that thesis. Skimming and summary has become so ubiquitious that folks can’t even be bothered to read a book about the evils of skimming and summary. I haven’t actually read the book, though I skimmed Carr’s Atlantic article (that’s where I got the quotes).
Carr might shake his internet re-wired head in sorrow. Pierre Bayard, on the other hand, would argue that I am fully justified in my refusal to read a book about how no one reads anymore. Bayard, a French scholar, is semi-infamous for his 2007 provocation How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which is essentially a perfect inversion of The Shallows. Carr argues that we are oppressed and rewired by the new-fangled shallowness of the Internet. Bayard argues that we are bamboozled by the old-fashioned pretense of deep reading.
I have in fact read How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read—or maybe, according to Bayard’s definition, I haven’t. Carr contrasts deep reading with shallow skimming and summary. But Bayard calls into question whether deep reading ever existed to begin with.
Whenever you read a book, Bayard argues, you are, to a greater or lesser extent, skimming. Very few ever absorb each and every word and phrase with equal and intense concentration. And then, once the book is done—or even before the book is done—you begin to forget it, until by the time you get to the last page you can hardly talk about the first with authority. Even had I read the Shallows before writing this, would I really know it better than I do now, when I haven’t bothered?
So it seems we’ve always been shallow readers. But where Carr might find this revelation unsettling, Bayard celebrates it. “Reading is first and foremost non-reading,” he argues. There are an infinite number of books to read; if I had read Carr’s The Shallows, would I have had time for Bayard’s book? The books’ content, after all, isn’t that important, Bayard explains. “Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system.” The internet, we fear, is robbing us of deep thought; it’s turning us into facile meme spouters and skimming link clickers.
Books are a cultural network. Thus, as a cultured person, it’s arguably much more important to know that The Shallows is a representative of books about the intellectual perils of the internet than to know exactly what’s in that one book in particular.
To wit, if the system of literature is more important than any one book in that system, then the person who lightly skims hundreds of summaries is actually more educated than the person who slogs through one or two entire tomes. Bayard quotes Oscar Wilde who, in his inimitable fashion, explains that the truly educated person need never actually read a book. “It must be perfectly easy in half an hour to say whether a book is worth anything or worth nothing. Ten minutes are really sufficient if one has the instinct for form. Who wants to wade through a dull volume?”
When you’re liberated from those dull volumes, Bayard argues, “readers” can move to the truly cultured project—which is inventing the books they haven’t read. For this essay, I’ve invented my own version of The Shallows; an imagined version unhindered by the actual dull text. “[T]alking about books you haven’t read is an authentically creative activity, as worthy—even if it takes place more discreetly—as those that are more socially acknowledged,” Bayard says. The person who lightly skims hundreds of summaries is arguably more educated than the person who slogs through one or two entire tomes.
And here’s where the internet may truly become a boon for culture. Where else are you constantly encouraged, and even required, to talk creatively and endlessly about works you have not really read, and things you know little about? The “hot take” media economy of endless skimming and instant reaction is presented as a dumbing down by Carr. But Bayard, and Oscar Wilde, suggest it might actually be the apotheosis of creative cultural expression. When have so many felt so empowered to leave dull volumes behind and speak so authoritatively about so many things they haven’t read?
“Encouraged from our school years onward to think of books as untouchable objects, we feel guilty at the very thought of subjecting them to transformation,” Bayard says. That deadening guilt may permeate the classrooms still. But on the internet it seems to be lifted, as commenters shamelessly riff on article headlines, spinning glorious paranoid fantasies of outrage that have little to do with the article that they often proudly declare they have not read, and will never read.
It is my fond hope, dear reader, that you are not reading this at all, but have already clicked over to social media to share your own version of it—a version, which, without reading it, I am certain is more passionate, more clever, and more gloriously shallow than the original can ever hope to be.
You can follow Noah on Twitter at @hoodedu. We welcome your comments at email@example.com.