Offbeat 24 March 2016

Once upon a time books were incredibly hard to produce, and very, very expensive. Scribes used to go blind working by the light of guttering candles, laboriously writing out words.
They called the process illuminating a manuscript. The term illuminating is an interesting word. It calls to mind the shining light of knowledge. I also estimate it might have been a Freudian slip, brought about by those guttering candles and the want of light.
That began to change with the invention of movable type, though not much. Printing houses remained small, and books were not much of a mass market proposition, still horribly expensive. The golden age of books only really arrived in the 1930s. The catalytic moment was a reinvention of the book by Penguin, in the form of the paperback.
The paperback was inexpensive enough for everyone to buy books, and the size of the thing was just right for a pocket. Large numbers of people began to read. Not only did they read stories, but they also began to absorb knowledge, be it history, science or learned tomes on debates that were current at the time.
The golden age of books was fleeting though, a blip in the passing of centuries. Television seems to have almost put paid to the age. Once upon a time large chain bookstores stocked hundreds of different books. Nowadays they stock a few popular authors, large amounts of religious books, at least they do in the bookstores here, and that scant selection has to compete with DVDs, computer games, toys and novelties.
It’s obviously a survival tactic, and who can begrudge a shop and its employees their survival? But I wonder if bookstores should not be renamed media stores now, removing the dignity of the fading emphasis on books.
As a point of interest, a vast selection of book genres, fiction and non-fiction, is still available through the world’s largest publisher, Amazon. Most of the books are electronic, but that is not an issue if you take the view that books are made of words, not paper. I still don’t grasp the fetish of paper books when so many books are now available in the electronic versions, including books that are out of print on paper.
The electronic realm is changing everything as far as knowledge is concerned. Way back then in the realm of once-upon-a-time, knowledge came at a cost which could either be the price of a book or the time-is-money scenario of hunting for a book in a library.
Google arrived, followed by Wikipedia, and changed all that. If someone knows something it will be documented. That knowledge has found a home on the web. There are people who are passionately interested in the things they know about and they want to share their passion with us.
I am an insatiable knowledge junkie. If a thought or concept enters my head I want to know about it now. This morning, I wanted to know about unicorns, particularly the thread with which a maiden might capture one.
I thought about writing this column on those creatures. It took me two minutes to find more that enough, but the path twisted and lead me to thinking about knowledge instead.
One of the places where my head lead me was to the people who still need to ask questions on social media about topics that could just as easily be Googled. Superficially I think of them as disabled intellectual slackers, too pathetic to go to Google and spend two minutes finding out.
But on another level, people who don’t know stuff are valuable. Imagine if nobody had questions, and just how dull the conversation could be if the need for knowledge was fulfilled and there was no need for questions.
Most people now seem to absorb knowledge patchily, often randomly from Buzzfeed. At least Buzzfeed sparks them to think about stuff, even if it is patently thick.
The thing that I find myself heading to is that knowledge is dependent on availability of information, but also on questions. Even if all the knowledge in the world was available, it would only have the same value as the questions that lead to it.