“Any art of any kind is a discipline; not only a craft –that too – but a discipline in the religious sense, in which the vigil of waiting, the creation of a receptive spiritual emptiness…all play a part.” So says writer, poet and all-round wise woman Margaret Atwood in her illuminating book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing.
In a culture of smart phones and ubiquitous internet, it’s increasingly difficult to get five minutes to yourself, let alone create a receptive spiritual emptiness to allow the magic art of writing to take place. The fast-paced world of deadlines means the ability to produce words quickly is paramount. But what if we could take time out to rediscover the art of waiting?
On this month’s Feed, I decided to try and rediscover Atwood’s sense of vigil. It occurred to me that one of the reasons we’ve lost this discipline is because of the way instant online search has replaced the art of research. I wanted to find a place where quiet contemplation replaces the google and wikipedia-powered search. Where the intrusions of modern life are kept at bay. Where the constant beeping of mobile phones are banished. Where the barrage of texts, emails and tweets are left at the door.
Where does such a space exist? The library of course.
My destination wasn’t just any library. The Cornish Studies Library in Redruth is the county’s largest collection of literature on everything Cornish, covering mining to modern art, poetry to prehistory, and family history to farming. My goal: to delve into the history of Penryn, home of our Stranger Collective headquarters.
On the shelves, hundreds of leather-bound tomes sit quietly, waiting to impart the stories, knowledge and histories held within their yellowed parchment pages. Portals to other worlds and times. Gold letters embossed on thick brown leather. The musty smell of the gathered years of dust and memories. Stains and smudges, the residue of past readers’ lives intersecting briefly with your own as you turn a page. A neatly-folded hand-written letter, copperplate handwriting from another era spidering across the page tucked into a dust jacket.
At first, it’s slow going. It takes time to adjust to leafing through the pages. I am shocked at how much I’ve come to rely on ‘Control + F’ to search a text for the information I want. Online, the neverending trail of links lures you ever on, the temptation is to click on and on, flitting from site to site, more information always just around the corner. We are desultory butterflies, landing on websites like flowers, but never settling, never engaging. To search offline takes on a different dimension. It requires a different mindset.
I’m no Luddite. Technology can and does open up worlds at our fingertips. But the way we process the information, the way we engage with it is different. We get engrossed in books. I can’t say the same for websites. Interested, yes. But rarely engrossed.
As I search, stacks of books grow in teetering piles around me. I fill pages of my notebook with scrawled jottings and notes. And I realise that often the real gems of information are what you stumble across when you’re looking for something else. It’s the intriguing footnotes that lead you on an unexpected tangent, gradually uncovering a picture of the past, taking you on a journey to a delightfully surprising destination.
Before I know it an afternoon has slipped away, it’s closing time. My head is full of characters, from Cornwall’s past: Lizzy Sherdy who baked her husband a pasty filled with shards of china to serve him right for getting drunk and breaking their crockery, Britain’s smallest blacksmith, swashbuckling pirates and silver loving cups. As I pack away my things I pick up my mobile – and decide to leave it off for a little while longer.