Low Tide: Thoughts From the Shallow End

I am not a brave swimmer. Even in my pool in inland California as a kid, I had a fear of sharks. Now as an adult living in Australia, I rarely immerse myself in the ocean because I am afraid of stingrays, sharks and even little fish. Luckily for people like me, our nearby beach has a netted in area where kids and neurotics can swim without being afraid.

Literature and critical thinking are often analogized with the image of a pool. People who never go very deep into a subject are in the “shallow end” and hardcore thinkers and critical theorists are the deep end (and arguably swimming without a shark net). The internet, we are told, is creating more and more people in the shallow end still wearing floaties and clinging to paddle boards. They like a splash, but they never learn to do more than the bare minimum required to jump in the pool. We admire the Olympic swimmers, the long-distance trekkers breast-stroaking across the Channel as they move from Derrida to cultural analysis of 50 Shades of Grey. But we could never do that ourselves.

Some people worry that the internet with its culture of skimming over things is robbing us of our ability to read deeply. I was reminded of this in a Quartz article yesterday titled “People who skim online are just as cultured as book snobs.” It took on the idea that deep reading is better than skimming and even whether it happens at all. In discussing Pierre Bayard’s book How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, the article offered up this gem:

“Whenever you read a book, Bayard argues, you are, to a greater or lesser extent, skimming. Very few ever absorb each and every word and phrase with equal and intense concentration. And then, once the book is done—or even before the book is done—you begin to forget it, until by the time you get to the last page you can hardly talk about the first with authority.”

I thought this was a fair point. Unless you’re reading a book with a very famous first line (Moby Dick, anyone?), you are very unlikely to to remember the beginning very well. Instead when we read, we are left with an overall impression, a feeling about the subject into which are scattered a few details that stick with us.

Some of us don’t even read an entire book at all. As a young person, I routinely read fantasy and sci-fi books upwards of 300 pages (anything less was too easy). I could finish one of these books in about two days, one if I wasn’t interrupted. When my mother asked how I could read so fast, I said, “I skip the parts that don’t matter.” What I was really skipping were descriptions and long explanations that I didn’t care about. In effect, I was skimming, not reading.

I’ve reformed my reading habits nowadays. I read every word, but I can’t claim to remember every word. That becomes a problem when I go to review a book. I don’t review every book I read, but the ones I do sometimes require notes. Even if I do take a few cursory notes, I could not talk with any certainty about the whole book. I offer my impression, my favorite passages and my opinion on my feeling about the whole work.

I am what author Nicholas Carr would call The Shallows. I have fallen into the internet culture of skimming and I do not want to get out. My reviews are essentially creations in my mind of the book I read, which may or may not be accurate when compared to the text as a detailed whole. As the Quartz article says, “When you’re liberated from those dull volumes, Bayard argues, “readers” can move to the truly cultured project—which is inventing the books they haven’t read.”

Because of this, I’m renaming my reviews section. I’m calling it Low Tide. This is where I swim inside the shark net, armed with my comfortable water wings and my foam paddle board. Welcome to my little part of internet culture, where I review books I read and write about them in a made up way. I’m here to help people talk about books they haven’t actually read, to give them a source for out of context quotes and something to write down on cue-cards for dates. So if you want to impress someone with how cultured you are, this is the place to be.

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