PRIVILEGING THE PRESENT
3rd October 2023
One of the gifts of having lived so long is that those of us who have spent most of our years in the century before this one, remember life before the Internet, before technology took charge of almost every aspect of daily life.
Some of us will even live to experience what the greater part of a century feels like - in our bodies, in the changes that shape our culture and the wider world. And it's important to value that long view for the wisdom that can be gleaned from it.
My generation, while appreciating technology, still knows how to search for something in a book. Referred to disparagingly as 'Boomers' (and Boomer is an ageist expression because it is almost always used pejoratively) we are not so quick to dismiss eyewitness accounts from earlier times simply because they can only be found in a book whose writer is dead, and has long been out of print.
The Internet has become the go-to place for information, yet it is still so young that there has not yet been a generation who've lived and died with it. We don't know where technology will take us, and we won't know for a very long time, if ever.
I often think of post-apocalyptic novels, like Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and Emily St John Mandel's brilliant Station Eleven, or even John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids, and how if the worst happens and the Internet should collapse, libraries - short-sightedly being threatened with closure in some places - will again become fought-over sources of knowledge, as survivors struggle with everything from how to repair machinery, to growing food and making medicines.
One of the Internet's more damaging effects has been the erosion of our attention spans. We've become adept at the skimming read, because there are so many new books jostling for our attention and we want them all, but we don't have time to read them all and properly process what they contain (if indeed they contain anything worth processing).
Privileging the present at the expense of the past means that books by some of the world's greatest thinkers and writers can only be found now in university libraries, where often they've migrated from the stacks into some mysterious netherworld of off-site storage, or online. Fortunately, we have second-hand book shops, many of which do value the words of bygone thinkers.
What these books from bygone days show us is the world in the act of becoming our present; they show us what it was working up to in the years before we were born. With a bit of imagination we can distil from them the social fabric that surrounded the people we were raised by, and the people who raised them - grandparents we might not have known as adults, or at all, parents we might often have found ourselves at odds with come into sharper focus when seen through the lens of their own time.