Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On Being First

I am reading World Without End, sequel to Pillars of the Earth: both books are about medieval England, and the assortment of craftsman, priests, nobles and visionaries that either impede or advance the efforts to build, respectively, a bridge and a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. Along the way, the characters kill, make love, go on journeys, try to ruin each other, and do all the other things characters do to fill out two 800+ page popular novels.

But what really interests me is the way the author, Ken Follett, captures the nature of how progress is made. Both books are driven by characters who solve seemingly intractable problems through intellect and force of will, doing things no one else in their community could have imagined.

But the interesting thing is that many of the solutions they come up with seem, to the modern reader, clever but not particularly ingenious. One example: in World Without End, the main character builds the foundation of a bridge by driving stakes around the area where the pillars will go, then filling the gaps between rows of stakes with clay to block the water. Clever? Absolutely. But not revolutionary, at least not to modern minds, even though few if any of Follett's readers have done anything similar.

What you realize upon relfection is that it doesn't seem so revolutionary because you know similar things are done all the time. You might have to reason out how to do it, but you know it can be done. It is much harder to ask yourself, about something that has never been imagined before (at least, as far as you know), "Can this be done?" Follett's characters win us over because they are always asking that question, and overcoming the obstacles in between them and their goals.

Being first to do anything is hard, especially in hard times like these when the easiest thing to do is play it safe and wait for things to improve. But human progress is the accumulation of knowledge gained as people try something first, and then a lot of other people applying that hard-earned knowledge to their situations. In any walk of life, there is the possibility to try the untried, and perhaps to prosper by doing something totally new.

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