by Diane Talbot
The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Recently, I reread the Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, which I first read when it came out in 2010. Ironically, this time I listened to it on audiobook – in just minutes, I was able to find it at my local library, download it onto my phone, and plug it into my car stereo to listen to on my commute. There are portions that are dated, of course, and ever newer social media platforms exist now, but the basic premise held up well.
When I read it the first time, I was militantly resisting ebooks for myself. When my son graduated from college, he bought me a Kindle PaperWhite for Mother’s Day, telling me if I hated it, he’d resell it. Today, I wouldn’t easily give up my Kindle. I love the instant gratification of being able to buy or check out a book, making fonts a comfortable size and being able to read anywhere without regard for good lighting. I like the portability of having a whole library in my purse, and I like that I can highlight passages and instantly share them on Goodreads, and that Goodreads automatically updates my progress on the book.
There are some downsides, of course: I don’t like not knowing physically where I am in a book. (Many books don’t have the progress percentage and even when they do, the type is so tiny that I have a hard time easily reading it.) I miss being able to easily close the book and stare at the cover art or reread the synopsis—and it’s harder to go back to reread a portion to remind myself of what happened. I tend to read a lot of sweeping historical novels that have maps and genealogical flowcharts, and miss being able to flip to them to refresh my memory.
For novels, a digital copy works fine. Yet I still read journal articles and informational texts on paper whenever possible, going to the trouble of printing whole textbooks when taking a course that only has an ebook. I need to physically make notes in the margins and highlight and flip back and forth. For comprehension, paper works best for me, and Carr cites the brain research that tells us why this is so.
Recently, I was working with a middle school student who struggles with comprehension. Reading one of his texts online—as almost all his schoolwork is assigned—he had a question about what something was, and before I could explain and get back to the text, he had a Google window open. Along with definitions, it included images that included barely on topic anime characters and he was laughing and changing his screen image to one of them. No wonder he struggles with comprehension!
As a Literacy Specialist, I still have many of the same reservations as Carr did then. I worry about comprehension and attention when students read online. I worry that they are being distracted by hyperlinks and the ability to follow those impulses. I worry that students are missing the tactile experience of a book, which I know is particularly important for kids with dyslexia and other learning differences. I worry that the information on the web is difficult to sort through for accuracy and relevance.
Yet, the move toward ebooks for education has many benefits both for the school and for kids. The costs for schools are lower, and updated information is as easy as an update to the webpage. The kids don’t have backbreaking backpacks. For kids with learning differences, in particular, textbooks can be read aloud, an important accommodation. The use of Google Read and Write allows students to simplify webpages, taking out videos and advertisements, so they can make notes and highlight online. Used thoughtfully, these tools are beneficial.
Technology isn’t going anywhere and we and our kids will have to adapt. Nicholas Carr gives some good insight and suggestions for how to navigate the good parts of the internet, and also keep the focus and depth we need to understand our world. For online work, I took Carr’s words to heart and try to keep distractions to a minimum when I need focus. I don’t allow pop-ups. I shut down social media and move my phone away from me.
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