The Pace Of Change
How life has changed. It used to be so different. Does anyone else remember their shelves groaning under the weight of all those books?
For a writer it’s incredibly easy now. Want to research some obscure topic? Just go to Google and start searching.
But take a moment and – unless you were born any later than say 1990 – remember how it used to be.
Once, I felt quite insecure without my reference books around me. They gave me security. I’m proud of having a fairly wide vocabulary (words are wonderful and I never really understood that time a friend took the mickey out of me for using the word ‘fractious’ in a pub conversation).
But even with all the verbiage that sometimes trips off my tongue there are still occasions when I can’t think of the right word – or the correct spelling.
It never used to be a problem though. I’d simply reach for the reassuring weight of my Oxford English Dictionary, sitting there next to a battered edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, a synonym finder and a copy of Brewer’s Dictionary Of Phrase And Fable. Nearby were various encyclopedias, books on plants and birds, an atlas and assorted travel guides.
All of the above were a fairly standard writer’s library. But where are they now? Mostly in a box in the attic getting mustier and dustier with every year. Superfluous when, with a few clicks on my keyboard, I can find more detailed and up-to-date information online, often far quicker too.
What amazes me is how fast, in relative terms, the world has changed. (For those of us living in the developed or the developing worlds anyway.)
My father used to lecture in electronic engineering at the University of Southampton. He started as a lab technician and, back in the late 50s, one of his roles was to go in and switch on the university’s Pegasus computer so its valves had time to warm up before anyone wanted to use it.
Back then Pegasus was the university’s only computer and had its own building. Now, the apps on your mobile phone are way more sophisticated.
In the early 80s I was a student at university and unusual in having my own PC (a cast-off thanks to my dad’s job). Most of my fellow students at that time had never touched a keyboard.
In the late 90s I went on a rather belated gap-year, backpacking around the world. It was truly a voyage into the unknown and I remember the excitement of arriving in bigger cities like Kathmandu and going to the main post office to see if we had letters waiting from family and friends. Phoning home was a major operation. Email was barely heard of. We even sent postcards.
Three years ago I started planning a major charity cycling trip around the world. The difference was incredible. Using Google Maps I could plan the route for each day, calculate distances and even ‘fly’ sections with Google Earth. I contacted hundreds of individuals and organisations in advance, booking up places to stay, talks and media interviews. All done electronically and the information saved on my hard drive.
Researching stories is equally different. For my forthcoming novel Pagan’s Sphinx I was able to check all kind of details without leaving my desk or picking up a book. Facts like sunrise and sunset times for the Western Sahara on particular dates, road numbers in Morocco, what 19th century Egyptologists said about The Great Sphinx at Giza etc.
Technological progress seems endless and I’m sure it must help save the trees but sometimes I miss the real books, the weight and the feel of them.
We also start to take the technology more and more for granted but occasionally it turns round and bites us. Like when I wrote the first draft of this post last night (without remembering to save as I went) and then WordPress had a glitch and I lost the lot!
Maybe I’d better keep hold of those books. Just in case.