With my change in swimming venue of a morning there have been a few accompanying changes. One of those is the company I keep. While there are rarely other humans in the pool with me, I am regularly joined by a frog (who refuses to be rescued), a squirrel who runs along the fence, a melodic mynah bird and a rowdy dispatch of crows. But the most regular company I have is that of a gloriously coloured blue kingfisher who watches me rather haughtily as I encroach on his personal inland waterway as I swim up and down the pool. The first time I caught sight of his bright blue wings I felt that the colour was almost an unnatural blue, as if he had slipped into a tub of thick blue emulsion.
One morning, I was in my usual meditative state of mind, my mind drifting about the kingfisher and wondering how I would describe the blue of his wings. There are so many blues in the colour palette, Prussian blue, cobalt, ultramarine, azure, turquoise, cerulean……… never ending blues. I resolved to Google “shades of blue” when I got home.
However, that sparked another train of thought. Perhaps I should emphasise that my swimming style permits me to soak in what is going on around me (in other words a head-above-the-water style). Thus the morning swim has been the starting point for many ideas, blog posts and even a petty major work project! Off my mind went on its own to a recognition of how quickly we refer or rather resort to Google or other technological sources of reference and information. In those hazy distant pre-Google days we used to have a wealth of reference sources, either in our possession or in what used to be a favourite haunt of mine – the library. That treasure cave, overflowing with my favourite thing – books! I had all kinds of books and I would spend many happy hours reading and leafing through the illustrated encyclopaedia in our home.
Libraries used to be a key part of my life, and not only during my life as a student. My love of books was demonstrated when I left my job in 1989 to take up a place at university as a mature student. Our small, cosy office had a collection and I was gifted a sum of money as a leaving present. Most people were very surprised at what I bought with that money. I was delighted with my acquisition – a brand new Collins Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. I was all set for university!
Libraries were integral elements of life. For example, I have only really two clear memories of that intensely emotional time following my mother’s death 15 years ago. The first was of losing all composure and completely breaking down at our first meeting with the undertaker, it was a desperate moment bring all those emotions and sense of being truly bereft bursting to the surface. The other intense memory stems from my compulsion to find a quotation from a certain poem as a reading. And what I remember is spending a great deal of time in the local library searching for “that quote”.
That was a time, not so long ago just before the dawn of the 21st century and the proliferation of the internet. Well, before its proliferation in my life anyway. Nowadays I would have been able to consult Professor Google and find out the quote and the poem in several editions in all likelihood in a matter of moments. But I can clearly remember, finding myself a table in the local village library, anthologies of poetry opened beside me as I leafed through for several hours. And that in itself was cathartic and somehow comforting in a way which I suspect a thirty second internet search would not have been.
Of course, researching from books was significantly more time consuming. However, I used to find it generally a real pleasure and I could happily while away hours buried in dictionaries, thesaures or encyclopaediae or in all manner of reference books. And even in those days, it was entirely usual to “surf” off in different directions as new gems of information and kernels of new questions would form. However, there was still the pre-internet older cousin of Dr Google who existed in the medical reference books on dusty library shelves, and who was just as alarmist!
As a student of modern languages at university, I needed to have my own reference dictionaries. Translation was a key part of our course, as well as language analysis and critical reading of literature and journalism in my languages of study. For French we had our main chunky French-English/English-French Dictionary as well as the monolingual “Le Petit Robert” which was an absolute Aladdin’s cave of language treasure. Looking up one word would send me off on a trail to understand all the nuances of that word in French.
Our Russian Dictionaries were a little different. The English – Russian dictionary was in its own volume, as was the Russian – English one. These were large, heavy books as were the French dictionaries, somewhat larger than A4 so not possible to carry out for easy reference!
Hence our regular lengthy periods of “residence” in the university library!
Much as I love our internet age and rapid access to almost any kind of information, books are still important to me. The Kindle, for example, could have been invented for me, someone who regularly has difficulty closing travel bags and dreads airport check in scales because of a book addiction. And the Kindle is indeed amazing (of course I have one 😉 ) and there are many things I love about it. It astounds and delights me that it does not matter how many books it stores, the Kindle never gets any heavier. Don’t ask me to try and understand that! I also love being able to lie in bed and buy books. That really must be the height of decadence! I love being able to hear or read a book recommendation and be able to search on the kindle bookstore and buy it within seconds. This is particularly welcome as we still do not have a huge selection of books available for sale. It also gets round the fact that sending a book through the post or by mail is likely to take a lengthy time, and delivery complicated so far away. Electronic books have gone a great distance to resolve that. For example, I recently won a book (in a draw) and the book was emailed to me as a link/electronic document. And I was eventually able (with the guidance of the Google Technology Support Team 😉 ) to transfer it to my Kindle. (Although I do have to confess that it is not quite as special as the signed copy of Gok Wan’s autobiography which I won a couple of years ago and which sits proudly on my bookshelf!
Many people have told me that they have converted easily to Kindle and don’t miss books. However, I can’t say the same. I do miss books. I joke that my Kindle looks silly with little post its stuck all over it as page markers of something I liked and want to remember. But I am only half joking. I really do like having those markers in a book. They are visible reminders and I do revisit favourite quotes (such as “I fall down. I get up again.” Although I did find myself tempted to try and press on a word in a real book to see if the dictionary definition would come up, as it does in Kindle!
One of my friends similarly maintains a blend of real books and Kindle. She loves being able to download the daily UK newspapers here in Yangon, as well as key periodicals on her Kindle, but still buys books for actual “reading”. And of course there are those memories of Sunday newspapers, serial pots of coffee and leisurely days working through the “step-back-from-the-world-for-a while” features and analytical studies. Although I have to confess that I also have clear memories of getting myself all wrapped up and tangled in the broadsheets and suspect that my Sunday recollection is actually more a nostalgic memory than actually really enjoying the papers!
This week I had another interesting book encounter. As I was walking along the street, I passed a lovely little roadside stall with calenders, books and lots of stationery goodies. My eye was caught by a little book, which I realised was a full calendar from 1900 through to the end of 2013. A 113 year calendar! Sure enough, I could look up any date in that time and find out what day of the week it was (very important in Myanmar culture), whether it was a full or new moon, festival and the Myanmar date. No need to Google birth dates for visitors to the country and no need to rely on connectivity. Perhaps it would have been more timely to stumble upon it a bit earlier and share the Myanmar calendar, as a way of balancing the fears of the Mayan calendar! It could have saved a deal of angst (where’s the tongue-in-cheek icon 😉 )
It is clear that I am holding on tightly to real paper and books as the world shifts in the way we store information and reading material, while using the convenience of technology for what it can provide for me. The internet has changed and continues to change so much. One area which is not the focus of this post, but which warrants a passing mention, is of course the whole area of friendship, support and community which the internet has gifted us. In my case, living at a significant physical distance the internet has enabled a completely different experience than I would have had even a few years earlier thanks to sophisticated online communication mechanisms and systems.
As I step back and reflect on this, I think it is not so complicated really. I think it is simply (as it is with so many aspects of our life) about maintaining a balance. With regard to information, books and technology we do not need to opt for one of the other. We can make a concerted effort to keep the parts we like. There is no rule which says we must choose now – “Kindle or paperback novel”, “Google or illustrated Bird Book” or even “Mayan Stone calendar, little Myanmar 113 year calendar or hang on-the-wall paper calendar”! I believe that the challenge might be more in maintaining an understanding and recognition of that balance. The convenience of the internet draws us in more subtly than we realise.
All of which is a rather winding trail of thought and deliberation sparked off by a kingfisher! And thanks to a variety of reference sources, I am able to say that my morning time company is in fact a white-collared kingfisher, a species prevalent in South East Asia.