This week, my teenage daughter became an Irish Times reader, having taken delivery on Monday of the first episode of the subscription I’ve taken out for her.
Thing is, though she’s an extraordinary, sharp and curious young woman – connected to reality in all its deeper aspects – I recently got to thinking that, like many of her generation – and other generations for some time – she has something of a blind spot about current affairs, at least of the national variety, something the education system seems almost deliberately to inculcate.
So I suggested that reading a daily newspaper might be a good idea – even if only to help with essay options come exam time. Actually, I had in mind something more fundamental: that, if she is to belong to whatever we nowadays consider this entity called Ireland – nation? business? who knows? – she could do worse than read all about it from time to time.
To my shame, my first thought was that she should read the Irish Times online. This from a man with my reputation, who a year ago gave her Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, which she’s assured me has been working its way up her bedside reading queue.
Carr argues that the internet is changing how we read, and therefore how we think, feel and remember – and not in good ways. Without reading it, my daughter arrived at what is actually the principal conclusion of The Shallows. In response to my suggestion that she read the newspaper online, she said that she couldn’t concentrate properly for long when reading on a screen. Coming from a 57-year-old “self-confessed Luddite” such a contention is easily dismissed, but from the mouth of an effervescent 16 year old it commands some attention.
Here’s one of the remarkable things I’ve noticed about my daughter’s generation of teenagers: whereas their elders, even their more immediate seniors, are obsessed with modernity for its own sake, they have this capacity to look objectively at each new thing.
They regard books as books, not as collections of encrypted data hanging like bats in cyberspace – and they love them deeply. They prefer music on vinyl, not because it’s fashionable, but because it sounds better. They’re not afraid of technology, but nor are they techno-fetishists for whom machines offer a shield against the world.
The Shallows is a deep and complex book, which delves first into the workings of the human brain and then departs on a history of the written word. Carr outlines how the distraction-ethos of the web may be rendering impossible the process of deep-reading by which the deeper sensibility of man has been nurtured since the invention of the printing press. And this, he elaborates, is short-circuiting the process by which our memory banks are filled with profound understandings and complex connections.
On the web, Carr says, we are being taught to memorise and think mechanistically, to shift rapidly from one thing to another, to regard Google as an external memory bank. And this is rapidly reducing us to “pancake people”, flattened out versions of our ancestors. Unless we begin to understand our new condition and deal with it, he warns, we may yet recall the period in which human understanding was defined and informed by deep, solitary and uninterrupted book-reading as an aberration of human culture.
Once again, man has created a machine, and imagined himself reflecting it. But this time the machine has the power to change his mind to exclude all possibilities that do not correspond to the new understandings. Of course, techno-fetishists will sniff and whisper “Luddite”, but there is something here we ignore at our children’s peril.
Carr insists that the internet is neither “the work of the Devil” nor, as Google might try to convince us, a godlike creation that transforms mankind’s situation unambiguously for the better. His ominous message directs us back to the word as written in the oldest books we have: to the longings that once caused men to scratch the shapes of their deepest questions on to clay slabs.
I do not share the widespread view that the newspaper industry is doomed, and that we must therefore hasten after the mob lest we be left behind. Someone observed to me recently that, had we grown up with screen technologies, without ever reading from paper, we would be delighted by the invention of the newspaper and the book.
As the Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco notes in This is Not the End of the Book, his recently published book-length conversation with the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière: “The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.” You could say the same about the newspaper, which can be carried around, read at will, scrunched up to put in your pocket, resuscitated and reread, and ultimately recycled to carry tomorrow’s ephemera of the common mind.