At the Technology Liberation Front, Adam Thierer has a long, detailed, and helpful review of Nick Carr’s The Shallows.

Meanwhile, Mr. Carr himself is pursuing a strategy of delinkification, and following up with, um, links to responses.

Text Patterns

June 3, 2010


  1. I am seriously baffled by Carr's obsession with links. Perhaps he has ADD, but does he truly believe that people click on everything that's linked or even notice links that they wouldn't otherwise be interested in?

    I consume a large amount of online info everyday, and I'd guess that my link-to-click ratio is somewhere north of 250:1. Even then, what I'm most often interested in is "who" provided the facts, or claims or arguments which are being linked to. So I often just look at the link source in my browser status bar, and only open a link in a new tab (often for reading later, not then) if the source looks particularly interesting.

    What would be truly distracting would be to have links as footnotes. I'd have to browse back through the text I just read to figure out whether I'd be likely to find a link worth clicking thru. Or as I was reading the text, I'd have to jump back and forth between text and footnote/links. If the purpose of the footnoting technique is to discourage people from clicking on links, I imagine it would be extremely successful. But would defeat the purpose of hyperlinks and the beauty of the web, doncha think?

    What I truly don't get is his worry that we don't "read" but just flip and skim. Hasn't he ever done research? These are essential skills to sort through lots of possibly-relevant material to get a sense of a topic and focus in on the relatively small number of books or articles that need to be "read".

    What we now have at our fingertips is the previously unimaginable luxury of being able to do gigantic "stack searches" in the equivalent of a world-class open stacks library. And the flip and skim techniques are critical skills to be able to maximize the benefits of such an enormous amount of available material.

    Maybe it's because I acquired my text consumption skills before the internet, but I truly have no problem shifting among different approaches to reading online depending on what and why I'm consuming something. Or maybe it's because I grew up before email and cellphones, but I have no problem "turning off" my email and phone while I'm concentrating on reading something on my computer.

    I would agree that a computer screen is less than ideal for reading long items. And even ereaders don't yet have adequate navigation or notetaking tools to work well for non-fiction books. But those are physical limitations, not attention diversion problems. I actually believe that non-fiction books are going to be dramatically enhanced as authors and publishers learn how to embed internal links and media into ebooks on souped up tablet/ereaders.

    I also would note that I have less patience when I read long-form journalism that doesn't get to the point. But "how to write for an internet age" is something journalists can learn. It's mostly a matter of pacing and narrative in order to keep the reader's interest and give shape to an argument. I have no problem "reading", either online or in physical print, a long-form piece that's well-structured. The advantage of online, however, is that it's likely to have links! 😉

  2. While I'm on the topic of reading and research methods, I think you'll like this new LRB piece by the historian, Keith Thomas. Though he's far too old to ever fully exploit the new technologies, he's not a Luddite. The principles that are woven thru his piece can be applied as well or better with our new tools. Tho he cautions about geting caught up in what IT can do and losing track of what we're really interested in achieving, his warnings are rather gently stated.

  3. To echo:

    Peter Norvig: "My conclusion is that when the only information on the topic is a handful of essays or books, the best strategy is to read these works with total concentration. But when you have access to thousands of articles, blogs, videos, and people with expertise on the topic, a good strategy is to skim first to get an overview. Skimming and concentrating can and should coexist."

    Also, scritic’s post “In Praise of Skimming”.

    And that Keith Thomas piece is great, isn't it? I may have more to say about that next week.

  4. Thanks for those links. However, I have to take exception to Clay Shirkey's "death of the novel" or "engineers win, English majors lose" remarks. I can't disagree that we're going to see fiction consumption patterns affected by delivery mechanisms and technology/culture. But I don't see how that implies death of longer-form fiction.

    Rather, (among likely future trends) I think we'll see something like we've seen in TV. Digital media have produced not just 30 sec YouTube videos but a Golden Age of long-form narrative. We've seen a major shift from discrete "episodes" of a series, where each episode could be watched in pretty much any order, to lengthy narrative arcs that involve continuity of story-telling and production to achieve emotional commitment by the viewer/reader to a fictional universe.

    I expect the same thing to happen with written fiction. I also expect that popular fictional "francises" will produce additional ways readers can engage with their universe – small bits of fiction like short-stories or fictional epistolary nuggets that flesh out particular characters or episodes that would have been narrative side-tracks or diversionary subplots but which inspire dedicated fan interest. And the works that capture the intense imagination of some readers will stimulate creative engagement like fanfic, videos and mashups (assuming we can eventually arrive at an appropriate compromise re intellectual property for digital media including written works).

    So we may have fewer single-volume forest-destroying doorstoppers, but I expect we'll see more multi-volume series, romans fleuves, etc., often enhanced with other media and "audience participation".

    And btw, when it comes to ebooks, I think publishers will start to learn that series provide a lot of benefits in terms of risks and rewards. A mid-list author of 5 reasonably well-received genre novels can milk a backlist of ebooks for years and isn't dependent on the all-or-nothing short physical shelf-life of potential bestsellers. IMHO, that's been Amazon's business plan all along, they just haven't been able to get the big publishers to see where their business interests are in the long run. An ebook is just competing against other digital media for leisure hours and dollars, and its pricing and ease of access needs to be competitive with other media.

    There's already a lot of this starting to happen in genre fiction, whether SFF, historical, mystery/thriller, romance, or YA, where series have long been a commonly accepted and successful format. And of course it's a classic format for bandes dessinées or manga that are so extraordinarily well-suited for digital media.

    I would agree, however, that technology/culture trends may make "literary" novels even more of an endangered species than they already are.

    And I'm also looking forward to your thoughts on the Keith Thomas piece. I was charmed, inspired, intimidated, and extremely envious, all in one.

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