Carr reviews research from neuroscience and cognitive psychology indicating the phenomenal plasticity of the human brain. The structure and pathways of our brains change after performing only a few extended or routine tasks. Reading a book by Thomas Friedman about Arab politics, as opposed to an 800-word column of his from Jerusalem, doesn’t just result in greater knowledge about Middle Eastern affairs, but can actually affect the brain’s structure and how it processes a unified, developed set of arguments. In other words, read Carr’s book, not this commentary, if you want to strengthen more valuable neural pathways. It’s simple: Expose yourself to lengthier arguments and you’re better neurologically conditioned to develop lengthy arguments of your own.
Students I teach, predominantly Arab, are more likely to bring their smartphones to class than books. I’m sure some professors in the U.S. lament similar trends, but I’ve found the Blackberry-to-book ratio particularly striking in this part of the world.
An ability to digitally multitask is, of course, a marketable skill in the non-specialized workplace. Traditional book reading, though, is associated with important civic and psychological processes, and as younger Arabs are choosing Tweets over Twain and Facebook over Fukuyama when their book reading was seldom to begin with, concern isn’t an overreaction.
More early childhood literacy programs are needed in this part of the world in order to better establish reading as a routine exercise, as is authorship and translation of texts in colloquial dialects so that native Arabic speakers aren’t alienated from book-length arguments. Literacy programs in early childhood and beyond should emphasize leisurely book reading on Blackberrys, iPhones, iPads, and whatever comes next, and must make more children’s books available on these mobile reading devices.
The “shallows” that concern Carr were around in the Arab world before the digital dawn, but now it’s getting even harder to spot oases of books on a drier digital landscape. And the lack of water isn’t necessarily the drinker’s fault.