Saturday, 21 January 2012

Reference books are dead.

Enthralled by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy last weekend, I decided to get a better understanding of the espionage struggle at the heart of the Cold War. Finding on my bookshelf the book KGB: the Inside Story by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, I dived into it - the first non-fiction book I've read for several month- and soon found myself hungry for hyperlinks. Every now and then - indeed, several time per page - I felt myself frustrated at not being able to click on a link to uncover more information about a related topic.

This does not happen when reading a novel; here, the author draws the reader into a self-contained world where explanations are provided within the text.

The title of this post is deliberately provocative. They are not dead, but their role is greatly diminished. Had I not had bought Andrew and Gordievsky's book in the early 1990s, I would not not have felt a need to buy a similar book today - there's simply so much information online, verified, cross-referenced, updated, debated on fora, discussed on blogs. And had the book's text been available online and hyperlinked, it would have made it easier to assimilate.

Gazeta Wyborcza has started publishing a regular history supplement on Tuesdays. The first issue carried an account of Operation RYAN, the secret Soviet operation to discover the circumstances of a purported US nuclear first-strike against the USSR. KGB: The Inside Story goes into much detail about RYAN, which it claims, is the second-closest the world got to nuclear Armageddon. And of course, this has prompted me to have a look at the Wikipedia article, to read more about RYAN and Operation Able Archer 83, the NATO exercise that the Soviets believed were the prelude to a pre-emptive nuclear assault. Clicking on that link, (and from it an entire network of subsequent links) I have learned so much more than I could have learned from a magazine article or a book chapter.

Wikipedia (may God bless it, its founders, editors and contributors) has brought about such an unbelievable enhancement to the information that we can access from our home or office computers, from our laptops, tablets and smartphones, that the traditional reference book or encyclopaedia has become a very poor substitute.

Of course, should the book contain a ripping narrative, great prose style, enthralling reportage or original research, or else voice a novel thesis, then yes, it's worth reading and buying. But simply to ground oneself in the basis facts around a subject, then it is indeed Goodbye, Gutenberg.

Having said all this, I've spent today in bed, knocked out by that cold virus that has been creeping up on me. And what could be more conducive to a good read than a day in bed?

But for day-to-day reading, it will be back to literature. And reportage.

This time last year:
Another winter walk to work

This time two years ago:
It's unacceptable.

This time three years ago:
Pieniny in winter

This time four years ago:
Wetlands in a wet winter

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your devil's advocacy does you credit and yet makes me say that I cannot agree with you entirely. Before Wiki, snippets in magazines, info from TV documentaries, pages from exercise books, histories... they were all the hyperlinks of the day, prompting one feverishly on to find the best reference books out of the usual plethora available, on a particular topic. They were - and still are - experiences to treasure, almost because their limits and parameters made the detective work so much more of a challenge...with the ultimate challenge being how ones own intellect would then discriminate between good reference books and poor reference books...and how would one do that? By sourcing yet more sources and reference books! Wonderful. All hail Wiki, for sure, but all hail the well-trodden past methodology that enriched so many learned lives. Long live Strange Bedfellows of the printed and the cyber world. One was born of the other in our pursuit of knowledge and where has much of the new hyperlink info come from? From Books and the academic brilliance that gave them birth!
*article in paper
*article in magazine
*snippet in encylopaedia
*documentary on TV
*mention of something interesting by relative
*random picture in a book - say Cuban missile sites
*listen to the mental cogs whirring into life
*visits to libraries
*visits to bookshops
*borrowing books from relatives
*homing in on the right reference book!
*light bulb moments akimbo!

Fr. Technical Issue