The Google Effect

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The thesis Nicholas Carr advances in the latest Atlantic - that the internet is changing our reading and thinking habits, and not necessarily for the better - prompts the following response from Max Boot :

For my part, I haven’t noticed my attention flagging because of the Internet. What I have noticed is that the Internet makes it much easier to produce longer pieces of writing. Google, especially, is invaluable, and not only because it enables anyone to look up obscure facts with a few keystrokes. Another function of Google is less famous but growing in importance for those of us in the book-writing biz — namely its “book” search function. Google has digitized thousands of volumes, allowing researchers to easily find obscure tomes. While no preview is available of many recently published books, and others offer only a “snippet view,” growing numbers of books whose copyright have lapsed are available in “full” search mode, meaning that you can, if you so desire, read the entire book online — or, more likely, print it out.

I have found this to be in invaluable resource while researching my new history of guerrilla warfare. It used to take me a long time to get books via interlibrary loan, and then the 19th century volumes usually arrived in very poor conditions. Now for nothing more than the cost of the paper and ink I can get printer-fresh copies of General Phil Sheridan’s memoirs, George Macaulay Trevelyan’s classic volumes on Garibaldi, or the Rev. James Gordon’s “History of the Rebellion in Ireland in the Year 1798.” Moreover, if necessary, I can use Google to search for keywords inside the books.

This is a huge and growing boon for scholars or interested readers, and it is the product not of a traditional nonprofit library but of a decidedly profit-making business. Thanks, Google, for making me-and lots of others-smarter. Of course whether readers raised on the Internet will be interested in reading what I or other authors produce is another question.

As the last line suggests, I don't think there's actually necessarily a huge tension between Boot's argument and Carr's thesis; indeed, Carr himself notes that the internet has been "a godsend" to his ability to do research for his writing projects. I've made a related argument in the context of blogs, arguing that the web is very good for certain forms of writing - the highly political and the highly personal chief among them - and very bad for others; by extension, I'd say that the web is very good for certain forms of book-writing (shorter forms on the one hand, and forms that require large amounts of research on the other ) and very bad for others (forms that require large amounts of serious reflection to write, and to read). I think the two books I've written - a short memoir and a short political book - are classic internet-age books, in the sense that they're the sort of books that writers are conditioned to write, and readers are conditioned to expect. (And I say that with neither shame nor satisfaction.) The sort of books that Boot writes - longer works of history, with arguments woven in - are in a more complicated position: As Boot says, it's vastly easier to produce them in the age of Amazon and Google Books, but I suspect that the Google effect that Carr's talking about - the declining patience for long-form, serious, and dense prose - means that the audience for 600-page history books that aren't about a Founding Father is shrinking apace. And the sort of authors whose works tend to stand the test of time - the great novelists and poets, the philosophers and theologians - are getting it from both directions: The Google effect makes it harder to write War and Peace, and harder to read it.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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