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The Catcher in the Rye and The Shallows

There exist some amazing books. Sometimes you start reading a literary work, and unbearably want to wince and quit. Then you gradually become interested, but the reading goes somehow sluggish, slowly progressing… and comes the moment when the interest vanishes again, and the book remains on the shelf. Then, when you almost forget about it, once again there appears a reason to take it up and finish. It was quite long ago when you finished reading, and it has been a month or two (or even a year) when you have at last turned the last page, but suddenly you understand that this book was very good, perhaps, one of the best books that you have ever read.

This is a template for understanding the value of the singleness of a piece of information. However, the contemporaneity has made our perception fragmental, and this fragmentarity has already become the feature of the modern world. We exchange information very fragmentary; and in everyday life, no one can clearly perceive more than a few, clearly defined sentences and / or a clear imagery series. Further, we’ll discuss the specificities of the contemporary way of thinking and perception, in particular on the basis of the two literary works – The Catcher in the Rye by Salinger and The Shallows by Carr.

“The Catcher in the Rye” by Jerome David Salinger

In the novel “The Catcher in the Rye”, we see postwar America, when the main slogans were acquirement, consumerism, and pursuit of selfish comfort. Salinger’s hero was the first to accuse the American society of immorality, hypocrisy, complacency, lack of humanity. Protest of a personality against social apathy and conformity, expressed in Salinger’s novel, in its time caused something like a revolution in public consciousness, but the problems raised by the writer are still relevant today, and therefore the interest in the novel is still high at the widest possible audience.

Unwillingness to adjust to normal middle-bourgeois level, to adapt to the fake, as defined by Salinger’s hero, reality and surrounding lies, discord with the society about the main life values doom Caulfield to the loneliness. He has no friends (having arrived to New York, he had long stood in a phone booth, but did not decide whom to call), and no real home (his family lives on the common law based on cold calculation, assesses life by commonly accepted standards. This solitude oppresses the hero. He strives to live human communication, talks to taxi drivers, random or unfamiliar people. But, unfortunately, all these conversations and meetings end with either nothing causing embarrassment, like a conversation with the nuns in the station buffet, or a quarrel, like it was with Sally Hayes. The meeting with the teacher Antolini ended with unfortunate misunderstanding, and the conversation with the hotel elevator operator with a scandal.

And yet, sympathetic nature of Caulfield never leaves him indifferent to the people he meets; they seem to become part of him. In the end the hero confesses that he misses all of them, love them in some way, and especially children (and his brother Allie who has gone from life too soon, and all the children in general). Caulfield sees his vocation in catching the children over an abyss in the rye. He knows it is nonsense but it is the only thing he really wants, even if it is foolish. Of course, Holden Caulfield is not a fool, he just stands over the abyss – he feels too painful and sensitive for his adulthood. William Faulkner explains the state of his hero as follows: a young Holden Caulfield is the most susceptible and resistant person in the circle of his peers is failing in an attempt to unite with the human race. For where he hoped to discover the humanity, there was nothing. Familiar places cannot give the young hero what he seeks for, and thus therefore his transition into adult life he perceives as the fall into the unknown, awful, and dangerous abyss (Salinger 5-8).

Not surprisingly, Holden is eagerly looking for at least some outlet, human warmth, involvement and understanding. Thus the question arises of what he wants, how he sees the future, the question is even more important because we know very well what kind of things he does not like. It turns out that Holden cannot imagine anything really positive. Hence, a naive dream of a simple mechanical work, giving possibility to live a quiet life with a deaf-mute wife. Moreover, Holden himself would like to pretend to be deaf-mute in order to break all the possible ties with the world where life is so uncomfortable. The unreality of such a plan is clear for Holden. He can only find a symbolic expression of his aspirations. He imagines a broad field of rye where children are playing on the edge of the abyss.

Holden is the only adult in this field. He is the only one who can rescue the children from falling into the abyss, and he saves them (Salinger 129). The author strictly follows the logic of Holden’s nature, only leading him to the search for answers, but the search itself will appear only in the later works of Salinger along with older characters. By the end of the novel it becomes particular clear that to the big world Holden can oppose only the world of children, which, moreover, should be guarded by adults.

Children are the subject of Salinger’s special attention in many other novels. They are not yet spoiled, but literally on every wall they see an absolutely real (and at the same time symbolic) obscene inscriptions, and Holden along with Salinger himself, despite their anxiety, cannot erase those inscriptions. So, Holden is not able to fight against the world abhorrent to him. He is brittle and weak; he is part of the world he denies. His hands are tied not only with his belonging to this world, not only with his personal weakness, but rather with the understanding or the feeling that he faces not some separate nasty things, but the huge ocean of meanness. Even if a man had a million years to live, he would still not be able to erase all the bawdry from all the walls in the world.

Over the years, the understating becomes clearer that no one is free from neither function, nor role which replaced the nature. But for the majority it is simply the rule of the game: one must learn it and live, not noticing a sad mismatch of personality with one’s self when it comes to the norms adopted by the society, ignoring the forced split of mind as much as possible. But Salinger’s characters perceive the order, which is considered the norm, as an anomaly. They cannot get used to the fact that they also have in some way to adapt to these settings, at least, to take them into account.

For the characters close to Salinger, this oblivion is equal to death, and that is why they have so clearly expressed nostalgia for the irrevocable past. That is what really makes up the main conflict of the stories and novels that made Salinger a modern classic: the dream of eternal ignorance, which is always preferable to knowledge, an effort to prolong childhood, when all calendar terms have long past, resistance to adulthood.

Holden’s story is a confession of a person who cannot and does not want to change the world, and can only with utmost sincerity to see and show the world so that we start to feel his disgust to it. Holden’s rebellion is similar to movements of a person asleep: spasmodic attempts to run, to hit and complete inability to do something, a feeling of bitterness and powerlessness.

“The Catcher in the Rye” is seen as a breakthrough to another literary dimension. This is more than literature, rather a manifesto, declaration, statement of faith of an entire generation, at least, artistic document that immortalized its time and a certain type of consciousness. It contains a mature and independent view of reality. Everything genuine, slipping from triviality and mechanical replication is of the highest absolute value for Salinger, in fact, the only real value in the world. And today’s life can only worsen the grief for authenticity and is not able at all to appease it.

“The Shallows” by Nicolas Carr

Philosophers have long been discussing the impact of modern technology and, first of all, the Internet on people’s consciousness and their ways of thinking. A real sensation has become the recent book by Nicholas Carr “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”, which states that the Web makes the entire mankind in general less deep, forcing to consume any information in gradually smaller fragments.
Nicholas Carr conducted studies for three years to write his new book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”. He notes that he was guided not only by academic but also personal interest while writing the book: he decided to take up this work when he realized that he started losing his ability to concentrate and analyze. Even when he was not working with computer, his mind experienced hunger from a lack of constant stimulation and rapid information blows, he felt a constant perturbation.

Then, the researcher wondered whether the loss of concentration could be a result of long time spent online. Seeking an answer to this question, he began to get acquainted with many psychological, behavioral and neurological studies that examined the impact of information technology in the way of thinking.
What he learned was that the situation was very alarming, at least for those who appreciate the insight, depth, rather than the speed of reaction. Studies show that people who read the texts filled with links understand less than those who read from a paper. People gaining information from multimedia presentations remember less than those who perceive information in a more calm and focused manner. People constantly diverted by mail arrival reports, instant messages and updates understand less than those who are able to concentrate. People who are accustomed to deal with multiple tasks simultaneously are often far less creative and less productive than those who do only one thing at a time (Carr, “The Shallows” 34-45).

A number of studies show that people on average spend less and less time to view a single page. Even those who are engaged in academic research online increasingly often shift from one document to another, rarely reading through more than one or two pages in one document. Other studies reflect the fact that people involved in a variety of multimedia tasks at once get worse results in tests for concentration and easier come to disorder; it is also much harder for them to distinguish important information from irrelevant (Bennett 79-83).

The results shocked the researchers, as they expected “multitask” people to have some advantages. But the worst part is that people who are accustomed to do several tasks at the computer are, on average, worse in everything. Even in the very multi-tasking, they are constantly distracted by everything and as a result they are coping worse with the work required.

It is also important that computers and mobile phones are changing our brains, reinforcing some of its areas and weakening the others. Thus, simply turning off the computer or phone, a person cannot switch to the normal rhythm of brain activity. Long-term changes in the quality of intellectual life can lead to disastrous consequences.

Of course, often an excessive concentration on a problem can make a person obsessed with it, and when he digresses from it for a while, he can then return to it with perspective and a charge of creativity. However, studies also show that this approach does not work in the thinking process not associated with any clearly defined problem.

Online work does not encourage people to stop and think about things. It puts a person into constant intellectual movement. The rising popularity of social networks which shower people with short messages and the flow of interesting but unnecessary information only exacerbate the problem (Carr, “The Shallows” 49-51).

There is nothing wrong about quick perception of information in pieces or parts. People have always looked through the newspapers, rather than read them; before reading a book or magazine people usually browse and thumb them through to choose the most suitable ones for reading. The ability of skimming and scrolling is just as important as the ability of thoughtful reading and attentive thinking. Frightening is that the “diagonal” perception of information becomes the dominant mode of brain function.

What should serve for definition of the most important information for further in-depth study becomes the ultimate goal and basic method of teaching and analysis. Nicholas Carr concludes in a brief presentation of his book that blinded by the treasures of the Web we cannot see the harm that we cause to our intellectual life, and even our culture.

The author of “The Shallows” also argues that Google search engine stimulates the degradation of its users; in his opinion, the search engines should be much more difficult to use, so that users made their brains work while browsing the Internet. Carr said that he greatly admired search engine Google, but the company seemed to have poor understanding of how people can and should use their minds. Carr believes that they are literally possessed with efficient search of information; however, all the efforts of Google, aimed at creating the simplest possible search, actually damage the intellectual abilities of users (Carr, “The Big Switch” 56-59).

At the dawn of the Web a hyperlink was considered as neural connections of the new super-brain which due to the large number of such connections would give all the answers. Later, when the Web came out of the academic environment into the wider world ordinary swindlers, it turned out that there are not only good links, but also bad ones, or to be more precise, not links themselves but where they lead to.

Carr’s book “The Shallows” tells about it in more detail. In the 1980’s, hypertext was considered a wonderful invention, and it was even confirmed by some researches that people who read hypertexts showed higher activity in those parts of the brain which are responsible for decision making. Hypertext began to be actively implemented in the education sector.

However, already in the 1990’s, before the emergence of WWW, many studies showed that, as it has been mentioned above, it is better to learn on plain text without hyperlinks. Carr also gives the results of researches related to other peculiarities of network reading: multi-tasking and distractive messages, updating services, multimedia and chaotic eye movements over dynamic elements of Web pages, and all the other negative things of the Internet that together lead to the same phenomenon of “network thinking” – people do not remember a single thing from their reading (Merton and Kidd 129-34).

This is associated with the fact that because of often “attention switching” a person’s operational memory cannot cope with the loading. And as a result, it does not manage to transfer the useful information to long-term memory in time, as it would occur with concentration on one subject or on a static sequential text.
This does not mean that online perception of information causes harm to the brain as a whole. As Carr notes, the human brain is a flexible adaptive system, which adapts differently to each new communication medium. Each media develops certain ability, but doing this at the expense of other abilities. In particular, web-surfers have really improved ability to make quick decisions in visual-spatial tasks (much like the animals running in the jungle). At the same time they lose the ability to concentrate and accumulate more detailed knowledge on a particular topic, and in general to think deeply.

Returning to the hyperlinks, Carr himself is not particularly radical, he simply offers to place the links at the end of the text, as previously footnotes were placed in books. And he says that this idea has been already supported by many network authors (Carr, “The Shallows” 95).

Thus, for example, the use of standard idioms of interaction allows users to quickly learn new applications, but it often forces them to act by a template. Therefore it is sometimes necessary to “shake up” the audience, forcing to explore new metaphors and models. Of course, users will only do that if they are offered new exciting opportunities in turn. One can see that this is actually real on the example of modern touch “natural” interfaces: millions of people are happy to learn unusual for them control methods.

Carr’s opinion is only one possible position, but what is attractive about it is that it is based on common sense and the desire to revise the existing stereotypes (Carr, “The Shallows” 67-72). There is also a somewhat opposite point of view. Some people believe that new technologies, criticized by some of skeptics because they are destroying the simple social connections of the past, create new connections. Not only machines distract us from relatives and neighbors, we were distracted by other people – people from Facebook, people from electronic mailbox, people who write columns about unreal ridiculous things. And as recently has been noted by the writer Bennett, social connections, even though distracting so much that it is difficult to concentrate on any problem for a long time, however, lead to the effectiveness of the new type (Bennett 57-68).

During that hour when you cannot concentrate, you will 1) check the e-mail and receive important messages from colleagues, as well as a confirmation of the meeting from a friend; 2) check your Facebook and read the necessary article sent by a friend, and also find a web page of a group of people who share your interests, and 3) yes, lose some time reading or watching something fribble.

Fribbles, however, were not invented yesterday. Thus, it turns out that the technologies allow people to have a relationship with increasingly more people with common professional and personal interests. It is the social level that this new effectiveness is laid in. The fact that we do not feel productive, that we, as Carr says, feel chronically absent-minded is in some sense the source of new productivity. Distraction between multiple tasks is what gives value to a set of social aspirations. Incoherence of the individual mind enforces the collective mind.

However, as Nicholas Carr stated in the conclusion to his book, that when we begin to think that we are becoming dependent on computer applications in most types of intellectual operations, in searching information, and even for ordinary communication, perhaps we should start to worry that all this is upstaged by our individuality (Carr, “The Shallows” 235-36).

Conclusion

Revolution in the consciousness of modern man has occurred in a very short period of time, which has coincides with the transition into the new century, new millennium. Waking up one day, the humanity has realized that it is totally different now. But the hardest thing in this process is the fact that the generation gap has happened; and it’s not just the computerization influencing the worldview of the modern man and creating a new type of thinking. There is also a change in the information field formed under the influence of the global information system.
Obviously, the changes in the modern social space cannot help having a significant influence on the content and direction of communication processes. The impact of social changes and new information technologies are related not so much to the capacity of accumulation and processing of information as it appeared earlier, as to the new forms of communication and perception of information.
Thus, one of the leading features of the emerging society is transience and fragmentation, primarily marked in the area of interpersonal communications. Modern communicative field is characterized by high mobility of not only a human, but also social systems and social institutions, reduction of time spent on long-term interpersonal communication, and emergence of new information and communication technologies which help reduce the time of linking people and time spent on process informational blocks.

Works Cited:

Bennett, Hal Zina. The Lens of Perception: A User’s Guide to Higher Consciousness. Celestial Arts, 2007. Print.
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.
Carr, Nicholas. The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. Print.
Merton, Thomas, and Sue Monk Kidd. New Seeds of Contemplation. New Directions, 2007. Print.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. Back Bay Books, 2001. Print.