Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, May 14, 2009

serendipity, alchemy, convenience

Jeremy Paxman tells the story here of his love of reference books. “A long time ago, when I had ambitions to start a personal library, a bookish friend told me there were three sets of reference books I had to get hold of. They were the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the Dictionary of National Biography.” That friend advised him well, and Paxman took the advice, eventually managing — through assiduous attention to London’s used book shops — to get them all: more than fifty large, thick volumes.

Updated versions of all these works are available online, of course, but, Paxman says,

a reference book's capacity for serendipity will score over the web every time. You may be able to turn up the biography of Roy Jenkins much faster on the ODNB website. But you won't see that the line of J's among whom he's interred includes the trade unionist Tom Jackson; his fellow Labour politician Hugh Jenkins; the great rugby fullback, Vivian Jenkins; the poet Elizabeth Jennings; and the daredevil submariner Norman Jewell.

A reference book is still the place to while away the hours. One moment you're reading about the creator of Zaphod Beeblebrox, Douglas Adams, the next about the bimbashi, explorer, writer and photographer Wilfred Thesiger, or the industrialist, Arnold Weinstock. Do they have anything in common? Not much, beyond determination, and in Adams's case a vivid imagination and a knack for procrastination.

This argument would carry more weight, though, if Paxman hadn’t already said of his authoritative reference books “I can't recall when I last opened a single one of them.” I’ve written about these themes myself, and in doing so I quoted these words from Tim Burke:

There are many contexts where I have very constrained expectations about what I expect to find through search, where serendipdity or unpredictability is not at all what I want. Then I expect to be King User, and woe betide the peasant interfaces and authority-category churls that try to get between me and my goal. But there are other times where I want search to be alchemy, to turn the lead of an inquiry into unexpected gold. I’m hoping that the rush to simplify, speed up, demystify and digitize search doesn’t leave that alchemy behind.

But if Paxman and I are representative figures, convenience is going to trump alchemy almost every time. I too love my collection of reference books. They sit on a shelf at the side of my writing desk, so that all of those lovely tomes are within easy reach at all times. And yet I can't remember when I last opened a single one of them.


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