“So much is exhibited to the eye that nothing is left to the imagination. It sometimes seems almost possible that the modern world might be choked by its own riches, and human faculty dwindle away amid the million inventions that have been introduced to render its exercise unnecessary. The articles in the quarterlies extend to thirty or more pages, but thirty pages is now too much. So we witness a further condensing process and, we have the fortnightly and the Contemporary which reduce thirty pages to fifteen pages so that you may read a larger number of articles in a shorter time and in a shorter form. As if this last condensing process were not enough the condensed articles of these periodicals are further condensed by the daily papers, which will give you a summary of the summary of all that has been written about everything. Those who are dipping into so many subjects and gathering information in a summary and superficial form lose the habit of settling down to great works. Ephemeral literature is driving out the great classics of the present and the past… hurried reading can never be good reading.” – G.J. Goschen, First Annual Address to the Students, Toynbee Hall, London, 1894
1894. We tend to think of such times as “the good old days,” when life was slow and time was taken to read, contemplate, and discuss topics at great length. Compared to now of course, they did; but the time in which we live now will look slow to future generations. We tend to think that women today tend to be more scantily dressed than 50 years ago, and it’s true; but 100 years ago they thought exactly the same thing of their own time.
Future generations will think it quaint that we had things called “CDs” or “DVDs” (that looked exactly the same but the playing devices were incompatible with one another!) that were physical discs you actually have to put into a machine to hear music or watch a film; or telephones that actually needed electricity, or computers that needed an internet cable, or batteries that needed changing. Our miniscule cell phones will look as bulky and clumsy to them as ‘80s films’ cell phones do to us now. Magazine ads from the late ‘60s were more wordy than some full-length newspaper articles today. Ads today don’t even use words – they have to grab you with an image because you’ve just sped past in your car, on your bike, or in a tram or bus or train.
Literature is changing too. When was the last time you read a tome? Do you like to enjoy slow reading, like fine cuisine, or do you prefer to read a book in a weekend, and if it will take much longer you’re not as interested?
“With the advent of cheap newspapers and superior means of locomotion… the dreamy quiet old days are over… for men now live and think and work at express speed. They have their Mercury or Post laid on their breakfast table in the early morning, and if they are too hurried to snatch from it the news during that meal, they carry it off, to be sulkily read as they travel… leaving them no time to talk with the friend who may share the compartment with them… the hurry and bustle of modern life… lacks the quiet and repose of the period when our forefathers, they day’s work done, took their ease…” – William Smith, Morley: Ancient and Modern, 1886
It’s all about perspective. So the next time you get impatient, stop and think about those past generations who felt intimidated by the speed of a steam locomotive, and instead be grateful you’re stuck in traffic.