Book of the Week: A Deadly Wandering – Matt Richtel

I read this book in two sittings. Novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richtel uses both skill sets to tell the story of Reggie Shaw, a nice Mormon teen in Utah who kills two scientists in a car accident when his car crosses the line on a highway one morning. Police investigators think Reggie was texting at the time of his accident; Reggie knows he wasn’t. When a neuroscientist testifies about the nature and limits of attention during his trial, Reggie realizes in one heartbreaking moment that his mind wasn’t completely under his control while he was using his phone in the car—and that he did kill two people.

This is a scary book. And a fascinating one if you’re curious about yourself and culture. Richtel masterfully intertwines the story of Reggie Shaw with chapters where Richtel follows neuroscientists in the lab who show clearly how they are coming to understand that we are much less in charge of our brains than our consciousness leads us to believe.

There’s a temptation to dismiss this book as one of those old fart Luddite whinges against technology. Read it and you won’t be able to dismiss the message: Our tech may be shaping us as much as we’re shaping it. (Don’t believe me? Lock your phone in your trunk next time you get in a car and see what it feels like. You might not be as in charge of your brain as you think you are.)

I put this book right up there with “big think” tech/culture books like The Shallows and Present Shock. And it seems that the media thinks so, too. There’s major media to launch starting with The Diane Rehm Show, NPR’s Weekend Edition, an excerpt in the NYT and reviews in the NYTBR and the Christian Science Monitor. It’s also an October Indie Next Pick.

Readers will be alarmed to discover what science has learned about the dangers drivers create when they text or talk on the phone. The vast majority of us are just not capable of doing so safely. Richtel excels at bringing to life his cast of sundry characters. (Virtually everyone agreed to interviews.) Readers get to know Shaw’s parents, the widows, the daughters of the victims, the attorneys on both sides, a judge who keeps Les Misérables near at hand (and required Shaw to read it), a victims rights advocate, scientists and, of course, Shaw himself, who emerges as a modest young man (a devout Mormon), a young man who’d never before been in trouble, a young man who, we eventually realize, could be any one of us. Comprehensive research underlies this compelling, highly emotional and profoundly important story.”
Kirkus  (Starred Review)

“A deadly driving-while-texting car crash illuminates the perils of information overload….[Richtel] raises fascinating and troubling issues about the cognitive impact of our technology.”
— Publishers Weekly

“While Richtel’s discussion of several pioneering scientists’ experiments into driving, attention, and distraction is thorough, clear, and eye-opening, it’s his investigations of the lives, and especially the interactions, of the people intimately involved in this case where his writing shines most brightly….The mass of scientific experimentation showing how the amount of distraction caused by using the phone or by texting is more dangerous than driving drunk is sobering….I view much differently now the cell phone resting in my car’s console; I think twice now when it rings before I pick it up.  You may too.”
— Allen Murphey, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH


A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention (9780062284068) by Matt Richtel. $28.99 hardcover. 9/23/14 on sale.

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