Plumbing The Shallows

To Ely, on a glorious September evening, to hear Nick Carr expound on his new book, The Shallows. The event was held in Topping & Company, a charming independent bookshop on the High Street.

The attendees were squeezed into a long, narrow room. Wine and soft drinks were served. The audience was predominately female, middle-aged or older and predictably middle-class. It was a quintessentially genteel, English occasion. Mr Carr gave a lucid, accessible talk about the main themes of the book (about which I have written here) and then threw the floor open to questions. These fell into two categories: (a) thinly-veiled opportunities for questioners to parade their qualifications, professions or obsessions; and (b) genuinely troubled inquiries about where all this networking technology was taking us. One woman — who worked for a photographic agency — excoriated the way the Net was ruining her firm’s business. Another asked about censorship and China. One or two just mounted their hobby-horses and rambled away.

The author dealt with all of this in a graceful and tactful way, even occasionally managing to staunch the flow of the more determined bores. Then the evening ended with him signing copies of the book. I bought one (the copy I possessed was an uncorrected proof given to me by the Observer) and he wrote a nice dedication in it, which I appreciated.

Afterwards, my companion and I pondered the cost-effectiveness of all this. On the one hand, it’s a reassuring assertion of the civilising effect of bookishness. But as a way of selling books, getting Nicholas Carr all the way from the US to Ely can hardly be justified. I’m sure he learned very little from his audience, and he must have given his spiel dozens of times in other venues like this. But it was good to meet someone whose blog I always make a point of reading, and who swims so productively against the tide of conventional wisdom.