Getting distracted in cyberspace

03:50, May 22 2011

There was a story doing the rounds on Twitter a few weeks ago that the world's last typewriter factory had closed. This set off a wave of nostalgia in cyberspace, despite the fact you can't tweet from a typewriter.

Me? I couldn't have cared less. I've never produced a single document on a typewriter and can't fathom churning out a story, one difficult- to-erase character at a time. I grew up with ctrl+X and ctrl+V rather than scissors and double-sided tape.

These days, a writer's main tool is much more than a word processor. The answer to almost every question is at your fingertips.

Research used to mean getting out of the house. It meant talking to people.

Research in 2011 should still involve this, but it's tempting to go without. Wikipedia isn't perfect, but neither was the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

"Mum, I can't find Zimbabwe!" "Look under Rhodesia." "Huh?"


The great thing about old-school, dusty, heavy-lifting research is the depth you are required to penetrate a topic. At the moment I am reading a lot of books about sailing because I want to be able to name the parts of a ship (and figure out what fo'c'sle is short for). But in reading firsthand accounts of sailors rounding Cape Horn, the ship I am assembling has become more than just a children's diorama: my ship is slowly coming to life with sodden stockings drying on the bogey stove and mishaps with the mizzen topsail.

Research online, however, is more likely to extend the breadth of your knowledge, rather than its depth. A favourite site of mine is the National Library's Papers Past , which has digitised editions of 63 local newspapers from 1839 to 1945. A harmless search like "moustaches" yields 2583 results, starting with a one- sentence article from March 1897: "British Army officers have been forbidden to shave off their moustaches." It only gets better from there.

The experience on Papers Past is typical of online research. Information is thrown back at you so quickly, in such volume, and with connections only an algorithm could detect, that you find yourself constantly taking detours.

The other day I wanted to find out when mannequins were first used in New Zealand. I was soon zipping off to read about agalmatophilia (sexual attraction to statues), then on to a YouTube clip of Buuel's 1930 film L'Age D'Or, where a young woman simulates fellatio on the toes of a statue, then off to read the story of Pygmalion in Ovid's Metamorphoses at The Internet Classics Archive, followed by a mangled version of Goethe's Pygmalion, Eine Romanze.

It seems silly to then go off and write a novel with depth and ignore this breadth. Novels should embrace the madly digressive model of Moby Dick. (doesn't it read like Ishmael has spent too long on Wikipedia?)

Fun fact: Herman Melville's novel was published 22 years before the first commercial typewriter was made. This shows that a contemporary novel needn't be set in the present; it can be about whales or mannequin makers or a typewriter repairman, so long as it acknowledges that the world is, was, and will be, teeming with strangeness and loose connections.

Craig Cliff is a journalist and consummate digresser. He writes a fortnightly column.

The Dominion Post