11 February 2011

Google? They Don’t Even Have Felt-tips Yet!

In the latest New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes:

When the first Harry Potter book appeared, in 1997, it was just a year before the universal search engine Google was launched. And so Hermione Granger, that charming grind, still goes to the Hogwarts library and spends hours and hours working her way through the stacks, finding out what a basilisk is or how to make a love potion.

The idea that a wizard in training might have, instead, a magic pad where she could inscribe a name and in half a second have an avalanche of news stories, scholarly articles, books, and images (including images she shouldn’t be looking at) was a Quidditch broom too far.

Now, having been stuck with the library shtick, she has to go on working the stacks in the Harry Potter movies, while the kids who have since come of age nudge their parents. “Why is she doing that?” they whisper. “Why doesn’t she just Google it?”
Well, yes, but mostly no. While it’s true that the internet has run ahead of many authors’ foresight, J. K. Rowling wasn’t trying to depict even mid-1990s technology. Personal computers had been well established by the time she conceived and wrote the Harry Potter books, but it’s difficult to find them in her universe. And even without Google, an up-to-date Hermione could have used computerized library catalogs, Altavista, and Yahoo.

Rowling chose to make Hogwarts a quaintly old-fashioned place. Its students don’t even use ballpoint pens. They use quills, giving the WB Shop one more thing to sell. That sort of pen is so old-fashioned that it seems delightful, but preparing and maintaining a quill pen was a real chore, and people gave them up a century and a half ago as soon as metal nibs became readily available.

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