Tag Archives: Nicholas Carr

The Death of Reading and the First Paragraph of The Ambassadors

Following Nicholas Carr, who argues that the net is changing the way we think, I argued that the net may prove the death of reading, qua reading, or as a particular kind of experience.

Certainly one reads on the web, but one reads for information. In one sense, this is very active reading; one is constantly clicking as one looks for a particular info bit. When I asked my students about how they use the web–whether or not that read entire articles–the whole point of the web, for them, seemed to be to avoid reading the whole article. One student said, I type in key words, I find the article, maybe I read the abstract if there is one, and then I use the “find function,” type in key words again and go straight to what I am looking for.

If this is how the web is teaching people to read, then something significant is also being lost.

I tried to indicate the nature of what might be lost–the experience itself of reading–by quoting the entire first paragraph of Henry James’ The Ambassadors and daring you, dear reader, to read it. The passage from James I felt would stick out like a sore thumb as the kind of writing that does not belong on the web. I wonder if any one read it.

I did several times and as proof, if one can call it that, I include here audio of me reading aloud the passage from James.
And if you want you can read it again:

Strether’s first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted. A telegram from him bespeaking a room “only if not noisy,” reply paid, was produced for the enquirer at the office, so that the understanding they should meet at Chester rather than at Liverpool remained to that extent sound. The same secret principle, however, that had prompted Strether not absolutely to desire Waymarsh’s presence at the dock, that had led him thus to postpone for a few hours his enjoyment of it, now operated to make him feel he could still wait without disappointment. They would dine together at the worst, and, with all respect to dear old Waymarsh–if not even, for that matter, to himself–there was little fear that in the sequel they shouldn’t see enough of each other. The principle I have just mentioned as operating had been, with the most newly disembarked of the two men, wholly instinctive–the fruit of a sharp sense that, delightful as it would be to find himself looking, after so much separation, into his comrade’s face, his business would be a trifle bungled should he simply arrange for this countenance to present itself to the nearing steamer as the first “note,” of Europe. Mixed with everything was the apprehension, already, on Strether’s part, that it would, at best, throughout, prove the note of Europe in quite a sufficient degree.

I think there’s a good deal going on in this passage and that it can’t really be put into words other than the words into which it is put.

Strange to think that James hired at one point a Type Writer. I say hired because back then the person who worked the type writer was called the Type Writer. And James, consequently, dictated his later novels. That is amazing. What kind of concentration did it require to speak sentences of the kind found above.

Is the Web the Death of Reading?

Reflecting on Nicholas Carr’s claim that the net has altered the way he thinks, I offered a contrast between the net as largely information passage and the experience of reading, qua that.

I tried to offer an example of what I meant. A rather poor one I think, and then I remembered, dimly, that I had written my master’s thesis on Henry James, a readerly writer if there ever was one.

I finished that dissertation in 1973 I think, and then in 1974, Peter Bagdonovich came out with the film version of James’ “Daisy Miller,” featuring Cybill Shepard. Boy, that was a long time ago, but I remember leaving the movie house disgusted. The rather horsy Cybill simply was not my Daisy. And that film–whatever else it might be–simply was not Henry James. Sure the guy had stolen the plot; innocent bullheaded young American women goes to Europe, doesn’t heed advice about how Europe is different, catches the flu and dies. That’s about it, plus some sort of moral. Awful flimsy stuff on which to hang a film. I have not consequently watched any of the other many films that have come out over the decades using James’ work.

You simply can’t watch a film of a work by James. James’ works are not watchable, only readable….if that.

Take the following. Try to read it (I dare you!). The first paragraph of James’ greatest novel, The Ambassadors:

Strether’s first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted. A telegram from him bespeaking a room “only if not noisy,” reply paid, was produced for the enquirer at the office, so that the understanding they should meet at Chester rather than at Liverpool remained to that extent sound. The same secret principle, however, that had prompted Strether not absolutely to desire Waymarsh’s presence at the dock, that had led him thus to postpone for a few hours his enjoyment of it, now operated to make him feel he could still wait without disappointment. They would dine together at the worst, and, with all respect to dear old Waymarsh–if not even, for that matter, to himself–there was little fear that in the sequel they shouldn’t see enough of each other. The principle I have just mentioned as operating had been, with the most newly disembarked of the two men, wholly instinctive–the fruit of a sharp sense that, delightful as it would be to find himself looking, after so much separation, into his comrade’s face, his business would be a trifle bungled should he simply arrange for this countenance to present itself to the nearing steamer as the first “note,” of Europe. Mixed with everything was the apprehension, already, on Strether’s part, that it would, at best, throughout, prove the note of Europe in quite a sufficient degree.

A first paragraph like that does not belong on the web. No information at all is passed. Just the experience of Strether’s subjectivity, which to be experienced, must be read. Of course, while this might be true, the question remains: is this experience worth the time it takes to do it.

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

That’s the title to an article by Nicholas Carr that appeared in the July/August, 2009, Atlantic.

A student in my research paper writing class turned it up, and I read it.

Carr doesn’t conclude that Google makes us stupid. But in the course of making his argument, Carr recounts how his own reading habits have changed the more, over the years, he has used the internet. Sadly–or not–his experience parallels my own. He can speak for both of us:

Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. 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. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I have read perhaps three or four books from start to finish over the last five years. The last time I did I was on vacation and away from my computer. It was on the Middle Ages and I rather enjoyed it, especially the part about Magellan and his sad end.

But mostly now if the argument is complicated or requires “de-coding” or is more than four or five pages long I start getting irritated and frustrated; and this from a guy who once read Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind from beginning to end, and almost enjoyed it. Looking now at that or Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, I wonder how I ever did it, and doubt very much that I could do it now.

The way I would put it–and I think Carr puts it this way too–is that the net has turned everything into information. Sure you could read the Phenomenology of Mind, but why on earth would you want to do, when one can’t find all sorts of Cliff Notes summaries of the thing, and, heck, many of them are pretty accurate (as summary) but not of course the experience itself. The experience itself is pretty amazing. Hegel lays down a line of reasoning, follows it out completely, pulls you completely in, then pulls the rug out from under you as he makes a dialectical leap of some kind, and you are forced to re-assess all the assumptions that got you to that point of departure. This sort of experience simply does not show up in Cliff Notes info bits.

What though–if one wants to know what Hegel said–would be point of this experience. It doesn’t show up as something can be turned into an info bit. The point of this kind of experience of reading is the experience itself and that’s about it.

So what’s being lost exactly. I don’t know. But I think the net may have a good deal to do with the way students write these days. They have been immersed in the net for years. Information is just a click away. The experience of reading is not. That may go part way at least as an explanation for the constant teacher complaint: students cannot follow or write themselves a sustained argument.