Sunday, August 14, 2011

What did people used to do?

When I first got a cell-phone at the ripe old age of 14, I found myself suddenly in possession of a great deal more freedom than I'd even known. Pretty soon, though, I was forced to use the phone. Leaving the house without it suddenly became "irresponsible". Walking around without any form of instant communication became unthinkable. Now, on vacation abroad, I find myself walking around without a cell-phone. When my family gets annoyed that there's no way to contact me, a common (and bitter) sentiment pops into my head: "What did mankind do before cell-phones were invented?!"

When I walk into a bookstore, I buy mostly based on reviews and author familiarity. Though I've begun to branch out in recent years, I'm still fairly adamant about only buying books I know I want to read and keep. I'll rarely buy a book that I only just discovered. First I'll research the book on Amazon, I'll read reviews and I'll try to figure out how worthwhile the book might be (and if there isn't maybe another book by the same author that would be better suited to start with). Even in the case of books I've heard of or authors I like, I do careful research before picking the next read.

But rather like cell-phones, I find myself wondering what it used to be like. I barely remember an age without the internet, without this marvelous tool that allows me to look up books and book reviews within minutes. I've been using Amazon since I was eight, and various other book-cataloging sites since I was maybe nine or ten. To be honest, most of my reading life has been grounded in the internet and the research process it has enabled. It's hard for me to imagine anything else.

Yesterday, while browsing in a used bookstore, I came across A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. When I'd considered reading another book by Mantel (after being completely and absolutely blown away by Wolf Hall), I'd sort of pushed the idea to the side, not finding any clear indicators of what the next book should be. I'd heard of The Giant, O'Brien but that was all. Though Mantel wrote the best book I've read in the past two years (hands down), I never bothered to look for more. A Place of Greater Safety came as a complete surprise, having never even heard of the book*. At that moment, I had no form of researching the title and I was desperate to buy any book. It looked interesting, it was cheap, so off the shelf it went and into my hands.

Which leads me back to cell-phones. Today, with information almost always at our fingertips (particularly for those people who, unlike me, have smartphones), it's possible to know everything you need before making your purchase. But what did it used to be like? What did people do before there was the internet, before there was easy access to book review? Obviously newspaper book supplements were a lot more common, but was that enough for the masses? Was everything based on name recognition and bookseller recommendations? How would you know exactly which book to buy? Maybe my extensive research is my own bizarre little quirk...

The older among us can shed light on this matter. Though I obviously have no idea what it used to be like, I have to say that almost every time I buy a book without extensive research and based purely on my gut feeling, I enjoy the experience that much more. Even when the book itself is terrible, it feels fresher and cleaner. I'm much less aware of the plot and of the characters and I have far fewer expectations, making for an overall more carefree and enjoyable reading experience.

Maybe I should also get rid of the cell-phone. Life is so much calmer this way.

* In retrospect, I see that A Place of Greater Safety was recommended in a comment left on my Wolf Hall post. My memory is truly terrible...


  1. I never buy books without knowing stuff about them, and that was the case before I started using Amazon. When I buy a book without knowing anything about it, it usually ends up being a bad reading experience. Plus then I'm out $15 or whatever.

  2. I think all the books I buy are based on some sort of research or recommendation, and I can't imagine what it would be like not to have access to all that information when having to choose a book. Before the internet, I sort of just hung around bookshops and asked for recommendations from the staff, but it seems that with most bricks and mortar stores going away, the only real way to find anything out it to peruse the internet. And you bring up a good point: how did people ever do all this before?

  3. Ha, well I suddenly feel very old. One used to have to go to an actual bookstore and browse and browse and browse, and then sometimes take a leap, or read reviews in the print version of the New York Times or other newspapers, or take a bookstore or librarian or friend recommendation, or just borrow from the library. Somehow it was okay, and in a sense much easier- less information to have to sort through - the internet while helpful can also be overwhelming! (And we had to walk uphill to school for miles and miles both ways - always in inclement weather ;D.)

  4. Before the internet, I had a harder time finding books; I would sometimes wander around a bookstore and have no idea what to buy, because I hadn't heard of many of the authors and didn't want to buy a book without knowing more. I would discover books through newspaper reviews occasionally, but more often through what other authors mentioned, and also through what my college teachers talked about. These days, I have no trouble whatsoever! It's quite a difference.

  5. I'm only a couple years older than you, but I very much remember what it was like before Internet and cellphones. I didn't have the Internet till I was 12 and I didn't have a cellphone till I was 17. My primary method of finding books before the Internet was literally walking into the library or bookstore and browsing. Sometimes I used those recommended reading lists that libraries have and I remember a friend telling me to read this cool new book, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," circa fourth grade. Only in the past few years have book blogs and online reviews become my source for which books to buy. Even so, I still make buys from something cool I found in a used bookstore. I also still read book reviews in the newspaper. Before the Internet, I think a lot of educated readers depended on newspaper critics for their choices, which is why critics used to have a lot more power than they have today.

  6. Wow, do I feel old! I never had trouble finding books before the internet. I'd read reviews in newspapers and Sunday literary inserts, I'd get recommendations from teachers but most of all I'd spend time just browsing in the bookstore and reading the backs of the books. They used to be much more helpful than they are now. There was also the Book-of-the-Month Club and a few book catalogs. In some ways buying books was more fun because I didn't know that certain books or authors were so popular or important and I get to feel like I discovered them.

  7. I can definitely say I had years of buying books pre-Amazon. I just browsed used bookstores, looked for authors I'd enjoyed and picked up something else by them. Or even better, follow the recommendations of the bookstore people. I love bookstores that let the staff post signs about what they like. I used to go to a charity book sale each year where I just picked up anything that looked good, and found some great stuff that way. It was cheap and for a good cause, so no worries if you ended up not reading it or reading it and not liking it. I also used to follow the New York Times annual lists (and still do).

    I do think sometimes we suffer from way too much information today.


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