Thursday 5 November 2009

Cardigans versus anoraks (round two)

Broadsheet journalists, moved to print by the Chambers closure, have been demonstrating a sometimes comical ignorance of where dictionaries come from. (Apparently they’re left under gooseberry bushes by cardiganed old duffers, which is OK because the duffers who write printed dictionaries are like lollipop ladies, we know and trust them, unlike those faceless geeks in Silicon Valley who are responsible for the electronic sort.)

In a Guardian Online article bemoaning the rumoured “demise of the paper product”, the editor of the Chambers Dictionary of Beliefs & Religions (“Faith, philosophy, controversy and understanding from the ancient world to the present day”) sings the praises of the printed book as “a superb browsing device”. He informs us that
Computers proceed by gathering facts, along with the links between those facts, and then run them through algorithms to try to make sense of the world — or more often than not, to fail to make sense of the world, as they get lost in an infinite tangle.
This stuff goes right over my head I’m afraid. Either it’s so highly metaphorical as to be more or less meaningless, or it’s just, well, nonsense.

He’s presumably trying to put into words the feelgood factor he gets from handling a printed book. Nothing wrong with that of course, speaking for myself I take as much pleasure in a weighty tome as the next man, although in the work context juggling six of them at a crowded desk can be less than convenient. Many people enjoy flicking through the pages of a dictionary, exploring a garden of words, tempted down this path or that by the exotic blooms they happen to spot. But the claim that the printed dictionary beats the electronic sort as a “browsing device” is a pretty tough one to defend.

“Compare the richness of that experience with a spell check facility.” Why, since we’re talking about dictionaries, not spell-checkers, which are mere lists of acceptable words? “An empty box on the screen stares vacantly back at you. The cursor blinks lazily. It offers no help at all. It conveys nothing of the world of words that, with a dictionary, you can hold in your hands.” Curse that lazy cursor!

The second strand of the argument, if you can call it that, is that printed dictionaries are somehow more real than electronic ones.
We humans are embodied creatures. As philosophers put it, we are extended in space and time. That’s no humdrum observation.
Well, if you say so, squire. How a computer screen can be said to be less a part of the “embodied” world, or less conducive to learning, than a piece of paper, I have no idea. A wittier blogger than me would insert here a drole skit featuring a luddite of the ancient world deprecating the soulless invention of writing when knowledge can be passed on so much more pleasantly and interactively by word of mouth — which might actually be a more credible theory than this one. As for me, I’m as lazy as a blinking cursor, so I’ll save time by stealing a cameo instead.

“Books do furnish a room” according to Anthony Powell’s epic A Dance to the Music of Time. I’m inclined to agree, as long as they all fit on the shelves without overflowing onto the floor, but Stephen Fry’s creation, Professor Donald Trefusis, would not. Here is the description of his “librarinth” in The Liar:
Barely a square inch of wood or wall or floor was visible. Walking was only allowed by pathways cut between the piles of books. Treading these pathways with books waist-high either side was like negotiating a maze. […] Trefusis himself was highly dismissive of them. ‘Waste of trees,’ he had once said. ‘Stupid, ugly, clumsy, heavy things. The sooner technology comes up with a reliable alternative the better.’

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