Me and my Hinterland

One of my correspondents got in touch a week or so ago, and said he now has an eReader.  His kids still interrupt him, but whereas in ye olde days he used to say “I’m reading a book” he now just says “I’m reading”.  It’s a subtle difference.

I am never wholly comfortable with monomaniacs, however successful they become.  If your sole interest is your business, or your football team, or your tea roses, then you might achieve great things, but you are equally likely to miss opportunities and ideas as you career forward on your single rail.

In the generation before last, politicians were often praised for their hinterland: Dennis Healey and Roy Jenkins, for instance, had a breadth and depth of interests that enabled them to think through policy problems and social issues from a broad frame of reference.  Repetition breeds staleness; perhaps one of the reasons that Margaret Thatcher ran out of road was that she had developed such a fixed certainty on so many issues that she had nowhere to go (and increasingly, no one credible to turn to) once things stopped working.  Hinterland comes from an enquiring mind and an interest in the human condition; a desire to meet new people, see new places and seek out new experiences, rather than repeating yourself.

Moving back to present day jargon, hinterland also derives from the content that we ingest.  Performance art (most of it ephemeral), art, music and words.  I can vividly remember the best concert of my life (Tennstedt, LPO, Beethoven 5, RFH, as you’ve asked), but most of my other live experiences have slipped deep into memory.  Hinterland requires content that can be drawn upon, like a well.  Parts of my hinterland look like this:

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Now, Susan Hill probably has more books on her landing than we have in our house, but the collection of books and music that we’ve assembled over the last forty plus years is an ever-present reminder of who we are, where we’ve been and what we’ve done.

Truth be told, I don’t listen to the CDs very much any more.  Apparently I have 22,000 “songs” on iTunes, including plenty that I’ve bought from iTunes and never owned as a physical entities.  Strangely, I feel different about those downloaded tracks.  They’re ephemeral.  And once I’ve listened to them a few times, they slip away into iTunes soup, lost from memory, coming back on Shuffle if you’re lucky.

Whereas, I know where every book is – including all of those that haven’t moved since we arrived at this house.  I know what their spines look like; I know what’s been relegated to the garage, what’s in “oversize” under tables, and I can usually remember finding and buying them.  My hinterland lacks the richness and depth of Roy Jenkins’ – but it’s here, and a glance at the spine of a book or CD provides instant access.  I don’t have to open a book for it to inform my hinterland.

Whereas searching for a file on a PC is hell – a morass of digital images has replaced our photo albums.  A Kindle 3 can hold at least 2,000 different titles, but once they’re in there, they’re like memos in a filing cabinet, lost to sight and remembered only vaguely, if at all – like the hundreds of books I’ve got rid of over the years, and have simply forgotten.

In terms of access, it feels as though I am stepping back from my visible bookcases, full of stuff I recognise and know, to something more like this:

Old acts of Parliament on vellum scrolls (IanVisits on Flickr)

I want to relate to my “stuff”, which informs my thinking even just by sitting there in the room with me.  I’ve sort of lost that contact with my music, and I’m not sure I want my reading to go the same way.  But technology is driving it that way, and is changing the experience of ownership.  So how do we hold on to that which matters most to us – our hinterland?