Saturday 22 February 2020

Club 18-22

I haven’t been back to Cambridge for many years. I doubt now that I ever will. There is a tension there like a runner just before a race. It never quite relaxes. It builds up and builds up until after a few years you let out a gasp and realise you haven’t quite been breathing properly for almost as long as you can remember. But it’s also an ideal. There is a college where you knew everyone. A bar where there was usually intelligent conversation. There are people like you, and you are not alone for perhaps the only time in your life. Afterwards you search for something similar, someone similar and never quite find them. But you daren’t go back again, because each time you did it had changed. You were no longer a part of it. It was a place where someone else studied now.

I remember most the library. You were allowed to bring a pencil. Nothing more. Your books were checked as you left. If you wanted to photocopy something you had to hand the book to someone who did it for you. There was a café if you wanted to socialise and a smoke-filled room without windows if you wanted to smoke. Elsewhere there was silence. There were no laptops.

I still spend quite a lot of time in libraries, but I find myself driven to the margins. You see I read books. I make notes on pieces of paper and I long for silence.

I find that I can read something reasonably easy on the bus even if there is chit chat. If someone is speaking loudly enough into a mobile phone, I might lose my place, but I can usually filter out the noise. I am lucky that few people here talk to strangers. I read all of Walter Scott on the bus. But if I am reading in a foreign language, I require silence and any distraction makes the task impossible. I somehow need to hear the words to keep the sense. Even whispers make me lose my place. The tapping of a keyboard is like the ticking of a clock in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep.

The library where I study is noisy. It’s very noisy. There is a café on the ground floor and the noise travels upwards because someone thought it would be a good idea to make everything open plan. There are as few walls and roofs as possible in a building that is still a building. I long for the ugliness of the library in Cambridge with dirty bricks, small windows, darkness and places where you could hide.

There are still books in my library. There are rows and rows of them. There are more stored away, but I rarely see anyone reading them. Everyone is staring at a screen rather than staring at a page. Frequently one computer isn’t enough. It reminds me of a one-man band when I see someone sitting at a desktop computer with a laptop on their knees plus a tablet and a mobile phone. Such computing power could have cracked the Enigma code in a millisecond except 1940s students could only do so because they read books and wrote on pieces of paper.

The modern method of study is this. First, we sit down with our friends and we open our laptops. We bring up our lecture notes which tell us what we missed and what to read. Everything we have to read is in our own little virtual learning environment. After a minute of this, we check our Facebook page, watch a YouTube video and chat to our friend. We repeat this until we feel we’ve studied enough.

There used to be lots of places in my library where at least in theory I could study in silence. But I studied alone. The rooms designated for silent study without laptops were unused, except by me, and so they were converted into places dedicated to communal learning. But I don’t do communal learning. I read books. I think about them. I write. I do this always on my own. I don’t collaborate. I prefer to leave that to the French.

So, there is now only one tiny little room where I can study without having to listen to the tap tap tap of the laptop. I patrol it and guard it as if it were the Last of the Mohicans. I drive out the laptops and the whisperers and I tell courting couples that there is no petting. Do it everywhere else but not here. Here is the only place left for study.

Since the beginning of writing people have studied like I do and books or something similar to books have been stored in libraries. But in the space of a little over twenty years we have made this method of study obsolete and we have reached the stage where we might as well digitise all the books and gather the physical copies into a heap and burn them. Everything that has ever been written can now be stored on a device that fits into my handbag. But everything important that was ever discovered was discovered by someone reading a physical book and writing on a piece of paper. If we lose that who knows, perhaps we lose everything.

I see no studying when I walk around the library. I see socialising. I see boys and girls trying to pick each other up.  I see no thought. Most of what we study except science and medicine doesn’t matter in itself. What matters is that people learn to think for themselves, to argue coherently and if possible, to develop original ideas. But this requires concentration. It requires hours of silence struggling with a text you barely understand. It requires you to switch off the laptop, switch off the mobile phone and to work hard without distraction.

Every time I see a laptop open, I see a brain cell dying from starvation. Every time I hear a phone beep, I see a thought that might have reached profundity lying drowned face down on the surface. Every time I see group study, I think they would benefit more from a four-year Club 18-22 holiday in Spain. They would have the sex and the beer that they come to university for. It would all be much cheaper for the Government and they would benefit more from the Spanish that they might pick up than the eBooks they pretend to read and the degrees that can be passed without studying.