The Paper Trails no.1

25 August 2010

The word “get” ruffles my feathers. “Get” is coarse, ill-mannered and greedy. I hope to come across it one day, in a line by Chaucer, bristling with power and birdsong. Until then I struggle.

So for me WYSIWYG (an acronym for What You See Is What You Get) has never been a positive concept. I am not charmed by seeing my writing presented to me as a drag queen in a tangle and feel obliged to be grateful.

WYSIWYG claims to perform a little magic and show the future in your looking-glass monitor: your content styled and turned out as if it were published; as if there were no processing to be done. But the lie does not stick. Processing is the (invisible) wizard. Where we thought we had control, we have none, where we expected to produce an elegant italic leg, we have stubbornly small caps instead.

The faux paper bears no yellowing tint, its corners do not bend with continued use. There is no doodling in corners because those areas cannot be reached without constructing a table and clambering across it.

Trapped in this world where expression is free but font style is not, where the page itself is a restricted area, we can but gaze on the unfettered note-taking and creativity of old, where font and slant and smudge are still vibrant imprints of their inspired authors.

manuscript page of Samuel Beckett's novel "Watt"

A page of manuscript from "Watt" by Samuel Beckett

“Go, ogle!” urged the wonderful Professor Christopher Ricks, last night at a Royal Society of Literature lecture.

His audience sniggered. These were people who read real books. Although they were probably all internet research sinners, the party line is that Google throws up all that is transient, that is “currently trending.” Google is the app of the modern soul.

But the search engine does a great line in silver service for the people. It’s the kind you used to get in the old British Library when the BL dozed like a tabby cat at the hearth in the British Museum. You ordered a book and about two hours later some kindly, vegetarian librarian would approach your desk, pushing a creaking wooden trolley on which your book lay like an ailing figure on its way to surgery. British Library librarians were rumoured to  bring you, occasionally, something you might also be interested in – incarnations of the gracious “See Also..” in indexing.

At the Google interface we do not have a domed ceiling to hold our most abstract musings. We have an expelled-schoolboy genius for a librarian. He hurls sources to us, some intact, others hopelessly fragmented from their context. The delight he takes in his job is similar to the librarian: there are direct responses to our search but also tangential ones. And his white-teeth delight is not really in the content, not even in the demotic, democratic listing of the illegal with the state-approved. No, it is in knowing how much of our life he has saved us from searching ourselves for all these miracles of human endeavour and howling fakes alike.

He parades them before us, the thoughts of kings besides ravings of the dispossessed, equally noble in their standard issue Google list suit.

c. 1680—England: A wash drawing attributed to Marcellus Laroon depicts a group of 17th century town waits—3 shawms and a trombone

An unexpected procession found in a google image search