Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Research vs. Experience

Recently, John and Hank Green were on tour in the UK for the first anniversary of The Fault in Our Stars, and John made this video in which he basically broke my heart by going on my favorite walk along the Thames - the one that goes past Parliament and the London Eye and the Globe and eventually winds its way to Tower Bridge and the Tower of London - as well as mentioning getting a drink at Eat to be rebellious and calling Caffe Nero "Caffe Nerd" because the font does kinda make it look like that, and all sorts of other London-y things that made me viscerally miss that place I once called home. (Not like I don't do that enough as it is, thanks John.)

But he was also, kind of, in an uncertain way, making an argument that virtual narratives are now so real and compelling as to stand up to physical narratives. He was looking at an object in the British Museum that was actually on loan to a museum in Toronto, but the space had been filled by such a convincing 3-D photo that it took him a minute to notice it wasn't real. So, he says, does that matter? Is it important to be looking at the real thing?

I'm a history minor; I do a rather ridiculous amount of research like it's my job. So there's something to be said for that - I do not have a time machine. I cannot find out, in a personal, physical way, everything about daily life in World War II or the French Revolution or Victorian London. I just can't. I have to turn to official documents and personal narratives and paintings and photos and maps; I can piece together my own truth based on the snippets I've been given.

And I obviously did enough research to create a landscape for my characters before I went to Europe. I'd written A TERROR OF DARKNESS completely when I finally went to Paris, and I think the only thing I wanted to change after having gone was noting how damp the catacombs actually are - it looks pretty dry and dusty down there in all the pictures I'd seen.

But even though the research I'd done was enough, I wouldn't have traded that semester abroad for the world. There are some things you simply cannot learn from books - sometimes you have to buy a drink at Eat and get stuck in the snow at Piccadilly Circus and eat pub food and discover places not listed on the maps. Sometimes you have to touch the stones of Notre Dame and breathe the dank air of the catacombs and dance through the gilded halls of the Palais Garnier.

I don't think John is arguing that everyone should always stay inside 100% of the time and be glued to their computer screens. That would be silly. And I think the question he's raised is interesting: is it sufficient to look at a picture of a thing? How much is there to be said for looking at the thing itself? How important, for example, was it for me to see the actual Mona Lisa when we went to the Louvre, versus looking at a picture of the Mona Lisa in my textbooks and online?  

Maybe the virtual experience is so detailed now as to be enough. But the real experience just adds something more. It allows you to create something more than what's merely "enough."

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