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...