From The Desk Of The Primitives: Greetings From Barcelona

The Primitives have been invited to guest edit MAGNET this week, so we thought we’d spin right back through memory, as the line from the title track of our new album, Spin-O-Rama, goes (how’s that for a clever bit of crowbarring?), and revisit some music-related experiences from our childhood, youth and early days of the band. There’s also some other random stuff to do with the world of the Primitives. It’s been a pleasure putting all this together, as there wouldn’t normally be any reason to relay any of this stuff. So thanks MAGNET, we’re enjoying the delve.

Barcelona

Tracy: I live in Barcelona, which makes being in a band that is based in England not quite as difficult as you might imagine, what with social media and cheap flights, etc. A typical day for me, when not doing band stuff, starts off with a spot of yoga and then I’ll walk my dog Dexter to my favourite coffee bar, Coma En Kasa (which means “like at home”) for a quick decaf soya and maybe some carrot cake. After taking Dexter back, I will cycle to wherever I’m giving a private English class. I am also working for a small language academy. Back home after dinner, I take Dexter for a long walk, sometimes to the beach or to the port. Then in the evening if I’m not out, I catch up with the the barrage of mostly Primitives-related emails Paul has sent or read or watch a movie—TV isn’t up to much in Spain. I have a stall at a flea market once a month, selling vintage clothing, jewelry, etc. I have to be up early to set up, but it’s great fun and bargaining and haggling with the customers helps me a lot with my Spanish. Everyone wants a bargain, no matter what language they speak.

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MP3 At 3PM: Les Bonbons

London-based pop group Les Bonbons, led by Billy and Fred Bonbon, prepare for the release of their new self-titled album, due November 17. They mix undeniably groovy rock ‘n’ roll guitars and jazzy horn imitations with French lyrics, making for interestingly catchy music. “Nouveau Départ” exemplifies the type of energy this band brings to its music. Download the track below.

“Nouveau Départ” (download):

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The Moon Is A Lightbulb Breaking: In Memory Of Elliott Smith

This was originally posted Oct. 27, 2003.

R.I.P. Elliott Smith (Aug. 6, 1969 – Oct. 21, 2003)

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Like Elliott Smith—as big a Beatles fan as there probably ever was—I never met John Lennon. I saw Nirvana as many times as most people of my relative age and musical proclivities (maybe even a few more, since I was practically in their backyard when the band and grunge “broke”), but Kurt Cobain was always more of a generational icon to me than any kind of tangible presence. I was living in New York when Jeff Buckley emerged fully formed from his residency at Sin-e to go on to critical acclaim and superstardom. But standing several rows back from the stage in a Manhattan nightclub was as close as I ever got to him.

Elliott Smith, on the other hand, was decidedly real to me. Human. Humble. Flawed. Generous. Opinionated. Fragile. He was all of these things (and a good deal more) to countless others as well.

I had the good fortune to meet Elliott on a couple of occasions and saw him lurking around Portland on many others. His preferred mode of operation was stealth; to be out and doing his thing, but silently—trying his damnedest not to draw attention to himself (hence the knit hat, the mangled trucker cap; camouflage devices that shielded his face from prying eyes). Sometimes this even seemed to be true when he took the stage and sat down in his omnipresent chair to play his songs of quiet desperation, inner struggle and (ultimately) the futile hope that things would eventually get turned around. He’d literally try to disappear before your eyes—mumbling something like, “Hi,” fumbling with whatever passed for the set list that night (he’d deviate from it anyway when he forgot the words to a song midway through), lighting up a cigarette and playing as though he was holed up in his living room, strumming and humming only to himself. Just when it seemed any remaining barriers between Elliott and his audience had been completely erased, overwhelming applause would erupt, requests would be shouted out and Elliott would look embarrassed, shift uncomfortably in his seat and move as quickly through the evening’s task as possible.

It was this utter lack of pretense—and the palpable undercurrent of truth that made Elliott’s music so real to so many people—that converted me to an unabashed fan of the man and his music. A secret to be shared with those you trusted, the ones you loved.

Elliott is gone now.

It was his choice, but this knowledge doesn’t make it any less devastating, and I still can’t shake the feeling it all could have turned out so differently for him. The details of how it purportedly happened are awful and terrifying, and the violence of his final act stands as a symbol of the contradictions so evident in his music: songs characterized by beautiful, intricate melodies that nearly (but not quite) masked some of the most brutal, unvarnished emotions and raw truth-telling of the past several decades.

These opposite impulses are what made Elliott so fascinating as an artist, and so conflicted and complicated as a human being. His music, a mixture of beauty and brutality; his personality, fraught with impulses to both create and to destroy; his simultaneous desire to be both in the background but to have the opportunity to fulfill the talent that would render this wish impossible to grant. In the end, he knew no other trade but to put his very personal observations on display in a very public place. It is the space between that Elliott explored, and the tug-of-war between these sparring catalysts that he spent his life attempting to reconcile.

Comedienne Margaret Cho wrote a blog entry this week that began “What is heaven like, Elliott Smith?” It went on to tearfully ponder some of the same puzzles that Elliott could be counted upon to ruminate over so thoughtfully in song: Is sadness a religion? Is love really all you need? Can someone be too beautiful on the inside to survive their painful existence here on earth? If I can see you, does that mean you can see me? After you’re gone, does the hurt finally subside? Universal questions. And in Elliott’s specific case, all unanswerable now.

Tonight marked Portland’s memorial for Elliott. It was originally to be held outside of Jackpot! Studios—the do-it-yourself recording kingdom managed by Elliott’s friend and frequent engineer Larry Crane and ex-girlfriend Joanna Bolme, who were in sessions at the time and requested that it be held elsewhere—but eventually migrated to a block between Division and Elliott streets, a bohemian pocket of the city featuring a wall with a Warholian banana illustration and a sign insisting that “Art Fills The Void” (eerie, but ultimately misleading and on this evening, nakedly false). The impromptu event was organized by e-mail—Elliott’s unofficial fan site provided the chatboard that organizers used to generate word of mouth—and was attended by well more than a hundred people throughout the evening, at points resembling one of Elliott’s early shows as mourners and well-wishers sat in front of the wall and offered encouragement to those brave enough to bring a guitar and try their hand at a version of “(I’m) Already Somebody’s Baby,” “Happiness” and “The Biggest Lie.” The same tragic scene has been replicated in city after city since Elliott’s passing—the wall was plastered with photos of Elliott, a line of votive candles throwing flames against the images (including a large one with an old set list wrapped around it), while flowers, poems, various Elliott seven-inch releases, a pumpkin with “XO” carved into its face, a pile of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and other flotsam and jetsam were lined up like weary soldiers presenting themselves for inspection. Cameras clicked; videocams whirred; and utter silence, interrupted by occasional sniffling and whispering, prevailed.

And, of course, the graffiti on the wall: “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.”

As has been widely written about in the days following his suicide, Elliott moved to Portland during his high school years and returned again after graduating from Hampshire College in Massachusetts before eventually relocating to Brooklyn and then to L.A. in the latter half of the ‘90s. His time in the city coincided with a vibrant period for Portland music—the local scene was a collaborative, family-like affair (it was unusual to hear of a musician who didn’t play in at least two bands) and Elliott’s down-at-the-heels sensibility and penchant for unflinching honesty neatly meshed with the vibe that permeated Stumptown’s loosely knit tribal culture. His association with Heatmiser may have flamed out during this era, but other artists such as Quasi, Pete Krebs and the Dandy Warhols all flourished in this environment and helped put Portland on the indie-rock map. Elliott emerged from this time at the vanguard of a movement, and whether he recognized it or not was destined to become one of the voices of his generation.

Our city’s stamp is unmistakably present on Elliott’s musical output. When Elliott sings about “falling out, Sixth and Powell, dead sweat in my teeth” on “Needle In The Hay,” he’s talking about a very specific location with a particular reference point for those who know anything about the city’s underground drug trade. When he needles an acquaintance who “walks down Alameda” shuffling a deck of trick cards, this is as tangible and knowable an entity as most Portlanders can conjure. The city’s annual Rose Parade was immortalized on Elliott’s song of the same name, made indelible by a rare moment of levity: a (incorrect, as it so happens) smirking reference to the “Duracell Bunny.” “Punch And Judy” gives a shout out to the very street where Elliott’s memorial was held.

There are scads of other secret references that, to Portlanders, aren’t secret at all. They form the basis of our bond with Elliott, our shared understanding of the man and what he was struggling to communicate through his music. They are what make him “ours.” This week, I have felt this bond more strongly then at any time during my decade-long relationship with Elliott’s music. There are moments I’ve shared with him that I will never be able to forget as long as I live, and I’ve relived a number of them lately.

Some of his songs are just too hard to listen to right now. I put on “The White Lady Loves You More” yesterday and skipped ahead as soon as I heard him whisper/sing “keep your things in a place meant to hide.” I was never a particularly big fan of “Miss Misery” when he was alive, and now it’s one of my favorite songs—but one that’s too damn fragile to listen to. And “Say Yes”—perhaps my most revered Elliott Smith composition—is part of an entire record (Either/Or) that is the emotional equivalent of putting your hand in the fire just to see if it will hurt. Shit was always breaking in Elliott’s songs—hearts, lightbulbs, promises, relationships—and just as surely as a window shatters when a brick is thrown through it, listening to Either/Or is like the inevitable end of that film we all watched in high-school driver’s ed class: When the car runs full speed through the railway stop, it always implodes against the train in a shower of glass, metal and human fragments. This is the sum of what remains after listening to Either/Or. And I’m just not up to it right now.

Years ago, I attended one of Elliott’s many shows at La Luna, a long-since-defunct club that was previously known as the Pine Street Theatre (site of a particularly nasty incident involving the Replacements and a couch thrown through a window to the ground floor; the shambolic show that followed is what inspired the group to write “Sorry Portland” on the outgroove of Don’t Tell A Soul). He came out late, the rather smallish environs packed with as many as could be seated on the floor and proceeded to play one of the most amazing sets I’d seen from anyone at any time. A friend of mine from Chicago who’d never seen him before was stunned into near-complete silence by the brilliance of that night’s performance, with Elliott taking requests from the floor and flying through flawless covers of Big Star’s “Thirteen,” the Kinks’ “Set Me Free” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (the latter of which he dedicated to his father, who attended the show and stood around afterward hugging his son like any dad would; a proud and awkward, but nevertheless genuinely affectionate, embrace).

Elliott could be as cynical and cutting as Dylan, possessed an ear for melody and an eye for detail on par with Paul Simon (but without any of the latter’s maudlin, sentimental tendencies) and could craft a three-minute story equal to that of the masters of the form (Lennon/McCartney, Brian Wilson, Alex Chilton). He took a previously braindead genre—the clichéd terrain of the singer/songwriter—and made it entirely his own. Relevant. Alive. “Punk” (if that’s at all possible).
As I write this, I’m going through a pile of bootleg tapes on my floor and thumbing through another stack of seven-inch singles, smiling at some of the memories they bring, cringing at others. One split release recorded with Pete Krebs features some playful insert photography of Elliott and Pete trying on comically giant animal masks. A tape features a cover of the Beatles’ “I’m So Tired” that is as world-weary and final as anything Lennon himself could have mustered. As ever with Elliott, each memento brings with it a flood of both happiness and sorrow.

I’m remembering one particular Satyricon show (sold out, with a huge line around the corner of a club that was located in what can only be described as one of Portland’s more active sites for drug dealing and prostitution) in which an extremely sloppy Elliott came out and stumbled through versions of “Chelsea Girls” and Jackson Browne’s “These Days.” I saw him later that night with local friends who were buying him round after round of drinks, and this is possibly the first time I can consciously remember thinking that his chosen musical persona and real-time experience were flying too close together for comfort; when I started thinking that a guy who wrote lines such as “I’m a junkyard full of false starts” or “I’m damaged bad at best” might not be built to survive the rigors of an industry that knowingly puts its workforce directly in the path of multiple oncoming trains.

A friend e-mailed me this week with the news, referencing the piece I wrote about Elliott in the last issue of MAGNET as her wake-up call about Elliott’s struggle to quell his demons. She called it “the truth no one else was writing,” but I was much less sanguine about the story; I fretted all week about how candid I’d been about Elliott’s struggle with drugs, his fragile mental state and generally regretted that I’d ever written it to begin with. It’s the kind of story that no one wants to be right about, for there is no reward in being an accurate forecaster of ill. Most of all, over the 10 years that have elapsed since I first saw Elliott at a tiny local club called Umbra Penumbra, I’ve been privately willing him (as I suspect many were, friends and fans alike) to pull out of his self-imposed death spiral and swim like hell for shore. That he didn’t make it is both heartbreaking and in some ways inevitable.

Elliott once sang of the search for meaning as trying “to go to where it led, but it didn’t lead to anything,” and ultimately this line captures where the rest of us are left now: with a bag full of clues that don’t particularly add up to anything. He had a new (reportedly, double-length) album—From A Basement On The Hill—that was nearly mixed and ready to go. He had granted a recent interview indicating a newfound willingness to tackle his addiction problems head-on (indeed, he said he had completed a somewhat radical form of rehab in order to try to rid his blood of the toxins associated with alcoholism). He was in a relationship. His career, after a nearly two-year timeout due to drug abuse, was tilting once again in a positive direction. But none of this was enough to ward off the self-destructive urges that plagued him.

I wish … I wish … I wish.

I wish to hell Elliott was still here. I wish I could tell him how much his music meant to me, to others I had shared it with. I wish that he had picked up the phone and called someone, anyone, before he did what he did. I wish he could’ve seen the kid tonight who haltingly sang “Happiness” through tears. I’m pissed as hell there’s nothing any of us can do about it now. I’m angry. I’m heartbroken. I’m struck dumb whenever I hear “Tomorrow Tomorrow.” I don’t know how the fuck to feel or what to do with the monsoon of emotions I’m processing.

Elliott was a sweet, vulnerable soul who possessed gifts that are seldom seen and even more rarely realized. I am at a loss to even begin to describe the importance of Elliott’s music and how it made me feel to hear it.

And now, he’s gone.

I rue the cruel fact that no more Elliott Smith music will ever be created. As Johnny Rotten once spat, I feel like I’ve been cheated. But—like everyone else who drew comfort or ease or some kind of relief from hearing Elliott touch on the same sort of emotional entanglements they were feeling during a low moment—I need to move on somehow.

So I guess this is goodbye, Elliott. I better be quiet now.

—Corey duBrowa

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From The Desk Of The Primitives: A 1983 Pre-Gig Mix Tape

The Primitives have been invited to guest edit MAGNET this week, so we thought we’d spin right back through memory, as the line from the title track of our new album, Spin-O-Rama, goes (how’s that for a clever bit of crowbarring?), and revisit some music-related experiences from our childhood, youth and early days of the band. There’s also some other random stuff to do with the world of the Primitives. It’s been a pleasure putting all this together, as there wouldn’t normally be any reason to relay any of this stuff. So thanks MAGNET, we’re enjoying the delve.

Mixtape

Paul: The first gig I ever did was when I was 17 at the Hope & Anchor in Coventry. The date was April 7, 1983, and the band was called Pretty Poison—named after the 1968 film starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. I was the singer. This playlist is side two of the tape we put together to play before the show (side one got taped over with the actual gig). The pre-gig mix tape was always a very important and obsessed-over matter, and I remember us trawling around the homes of various friends in the days leading up to the gig to record the records we didn’t own. A lot of the music Pretty Poison was trying to emulate is featured on this playlist. We weren’t very good, to be honest, though there were some very nice vintage, twangy guitar sounds, and we did have a song called “Drunken Butterfly” 10 years before Sonic Youth. Check out the mix tape here.

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Film At 11: Ty Segall

By the age of 26, singer/songwriter Ty Segall had done more solo albums, collaborations and side projects than most musicians can even dream of. His latest release, Manipulator, is a monster LP with songs that have potential to one day be rock ‘n’ roll classics. Now he issues a video for “The Singer,” in which Segall plays with a ghost band in what looks like could be his apartment. Whether it’s his bright red pants, his brief flight or the hallucinogenic colors, the clip seeps fun. Check it out below.

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From The Desk Of The Primitives: Two ’60s Female-Fronted Songs

The Primitives have been invited to guest edit MAGNET this week, so we thought we’d spin right back through memory, as the line from the title track of our new album, Spin-O-Rama, goes (how’s that for a clever bit of crowbarring?), and revisit some music-related experiences from our childhood, youth and early days of the band. There’s also some other random stuff to do with the world of the Primitives. It’s been a pleasure putting all this together, as there wouldn’t normally be any reason to relay any of this stuff. So thanks MAGNET, we’re enjoying the delve.

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Tracy: Here’s a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “It’s No Secret” by Susan Barrett. A minor northern-soul spin. The other side (“What’s It Gonna Be?”) is the better-known track, and it’s good, too—it’s debatable whether it beats Dusty’s version, but the aforementioned is a mighty tune and we never tire of hearing it.

In a similar vein, here is a song by British girl group the Chantelles, which seems to have all the components of one of those not-strictly-soul northern-soul floor fillers, but wasn’t. When I first found this record I played it about 30 times in a row. I get greedy like that when I hear something I really like.

By the way, check out the album we recorded a few years ago called Echoes & Rhymes, if you haven’t already. It’s a covers album and all the songs are girl-fronted obscurities from the ’60s and early ’70s.

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MP3 At 3PM: Eyelids

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Portland’s Eyelids hold more than meets the eye. Not only were they the main instrumentalists on over eight releases for Robert Pollard’s Boston Spaceships, but they have also worked with big indie names such as Stephen Malkmus, the Decemberists and Elliott Smith. With new record 854 on the way, Eyelids premiere a new track called “Forget About Tomorrow.” The song is short and sweet, and in accordance with their previous work, it’s also beautifully and expertly composed. Download it below.

“Forget About Tomorrow” (download):

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From The Desk Of The Primitives: Live In Session On Mike Joyce’s “EVR” Radio Show March 22, 2011

The Primitives have been invited to guest edit MAGNET this week, so we thought we’d spin right back through memory, as the line from the title track of our new album, Spin-O-Rama, goes (how’s that for a clever bit of crowbarring?), and revisit some music-related experiences from our childhood, youth and early days of the band. There’s also some other random stuff to do with the world of the Primitives. It’s been a pleasure putting all this together, as there wouldn’t normally be any reason to relay any of this stuff. So thanks MAGNET, we’re enjoying the delve.

MikeJoyce

The Primitives: We dropped in on ex-Smiths member Mike Joyce in Manchester in 2011 while on tour, and played three songs live on his radio show: “Rattle My Cage,” “Crash” and “Dreamwalk Baby.” Check them out here.

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From The Desk Of The Primitives: An Intro

Primitives

We have been invited to guest edit MAGNET this week, so we thought we’d spin right back through memory, as the line from the title track of the Primitives‘ new album, Spin-O-Rama, goes (how’s that for a clever bit of crowbarring?), and revisit some music-related experiences from our childhood, youth and early days of the band. There’s also some other random stuff to do with the world of the Primitives. It’s been a pleasure putting all this together, as there wouldn’t normally be any reason to relay any of this stuff. So thanks MAGNET, we’re enjoying the delve.

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From The Desk Of Negativland: Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains”

Negativland was asked to be guest editor of MAGNET this week, which poses a challenge to such a large collective of members with extremely disparate tastes and obsessions. Members Peter Conheim and Mark Hosler came forward to share what’s been on their minds lately and, indeed, what’s informed their thoughts and work over the years. The group’s new album is entitled It’s All In Your Head and, being entirely about faith, monotheism and why humans believe in God, comes packaged inside of an actual King James Bible. And while religion and intolerance are posing the biggest and toughest dilemmas facing the world today—well, excepting that climate business—Negativland will focus instead this week on such things as sounds, pictures and books. And the impending death of everything due to digital technology.

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Mark Hosler: New technologies enter into our lives (like, say, the ability to digitally copy and replicate things, and make new art and music that way) and, as a society, we do not tend to have very in-depth or thoughtful conversations about just what these new technologies might mean for us and our lives and well being.  What if, for example, upon the invention of the automobile, someone told us “Well, yeah, you do get to be mobile in this amazing new way, and see and do all kinds of things you never saw or did before, and you’ll get all kinds of goods brought to your doorstep that you never could get ahold of. But, well, see the trade off is that it will tend to atomize and fracture your communities and alienate you from one another, you’ll build your entire modern living infrastructure around the use of them, you’ll destroy your air quality, about 40,000 of you will die each year in accidents in them, and your country will repeatedly go to war and bankrupt itself to get the energy stuff you need to run those things. Oh, and yeah, I forgot, it will contribute in a major way to the end of your entire planet due to the climate change that those auto emissions cause. So enjoy that car, OK?”

So, just what is that harmless digital device, the one you hold in your hand right now and are using to read this article, doing to you? To all of us? Nothing? Something? Could using it possibly be chaaaaaaaaanging you at levels we are not aware of?  Check out The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr for some well-researched and thoughtful answers to that question.

In his very-easy-to-read book, Carr convincingly argues that Western civilizations’ now ubiquitous use of all these iDevices is a sea change in how humans think and relate to the world and to one another, one that goes beyond the ways that are commonly understood. It’s a change, he suggests, that is as sweeping as the invention of the book. Drawing on research into brain science, brain development, and neuroplasticity, Carr finds much evidence that the technologies we use to find, store, and share information are literally rerouting our neural pathways, and dramatically and even physically changing our brains. The author is no Luddite, but offers what is ultimately a damning and very disturbing perspective on where these machines seem to be leading us. It’s surprisingly scary stuff.

The prefrontal lobe is where we store our short-term memory, and the hippocampus is where we store our long term memories. Our devices and how we use them fill up the short term memory part of our brain with more noise and useless neural trash (more cat videos, please!) than ever before in human history. Our brains love the “hit” of instant information and novelty, and can’t resist it. The short term is useful for when you need to keep some piece of information in your head for just a few seconds. Maybe it is a number that you are “carrying over” to do a subtraction, or a persuasive argument that you are going to make as soon as the other person finishes talking. It’s useful for survival, but it is no good at distinguishing important long-term information from the noise and trash we fill it with. The long-term memory part of our brain, the hippocampus, does that part, especially when it gets information in a slow drip from things like reading books or writing essays. It’s where we thoughtfully sort through information to make smarter long-term choices about our lives, who we love, where we live and work, who we vote for, what our economy ought to look like, when to go to war, what laws we may or may not need, etc., looking at the big picture and into the deep future. Neuroscience tells us that the more we use the short term, the larger it gets. And the less we use the long term, the smaller it gets. (Yep, our hippocampus is actually shrinking and our prefrontal lobe is actually getting bigger! This factoid kinda blew my mind.)

The impact of this is huge and quite weird to learn about, though it is something I have often intuitively thought might be true, especially when I observe how people use their devices in public spaces. Our brains and even our physical behavior is being modified by these things, as if we are willingly turning ourselves into some kind of human/machine Borg-like hybrid. Or like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. We still look kind of human, but what are we becoming? I know that sounds a bit extreme, but read this book and decide for yourself if this what we want for ourselves and our world. I think it’s a discussion very worth having. If our long-term memory is vanishing, and our short term is full to bursting with useless distraction, how in hell do we run our lives, our cities, our states, our countries and our planet, and commit to the hard choices we clearly need to make as a species if we are to save ourselves? Essential, zoom-out-to-the-big-picture reading, The Shallows is one of the most thought-provoking and startling things I have read in many years.

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