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Open Features: Universal Knowledge

An abundance of knowledge between hard covers is not necessarily a good thing, as reading enthusiast Brian Lockett reveals.

When I was a child I was given as a birthday present a heavy book called The Great Encyclopaedia of Universal Knowledge. My mother was forever saying ‘He’s always got his head in a book’, probably because I was pretty surly most of the time and didn’t like being presented or shown off to relatives and friends. So whenever I suspected that this was going to happen I would ostentatiously be reading, too absorbed to respond to ‘Come and give Auntie Hilda a kiss, Brian’ or some such.

I have forgotten who gave me the book. It could have been that very Auntie Hilda or someone else determined to get their own back on me. ‘Right,’ they probably said to themselves, ‘Likes reading, does he? I’ll give him something to get his teeth into.’ The intention being, of course, to present me with something so indigestible if read from cover to cover that it would put me off reading for life.

And it almost worked.

It seemed to me at the time that a book with such an impressive title must contain the sum of human knowledge accumulated by many clever people over many years and that if I mastered it I would not have to go to school ever again and could have any job I wished.

Do you remember when Tony Hancock found himself alone with Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy? He reasoned that since he spoke English and the work was written in that language, he would have no difficulty understanding it and would be able to discuss its contents fluently afterwards. I think it was when he got to the second paragraph that he realised that it was not as simple as that.

Something similar happened to me with The Great Encyclopaedia of Universal Knowledge. It is true that I didn’t start at the beginning. That was about how the world was created, which didn’t interest me a bit. I turned to the index at the back and looked up ‘photography’, because that was a modern, practical subject and I was hoping to get a camera for Christmas. It was then that I had the Hancock experience, which is why to this day I am the world’s worst photographer. I produce surreal pictures of the ceiling, people with no heads or part of my thumb alongside, perhaps, an open window.

The closed door of the world of photography faces me to this day, despite the fact that the whole science has been simplified to the point of absurdity, Children of five can take photographs nowadays and none of them, I am pretty sure, has ever read a book or even part of a book on the subject.

So my first experience of universal knowledge was a great disappointment. If I went the wrong way about acquiring such knowledge, then I hope someone will tell me where I went astray.

It may be, I suppose, that I didn’t give the book a chance. Perhaps in those distant days you had to know how the world was created before you could understand photography and my attempt to short-circuit the process was doomed from the start. If there are people out there who adopted this correct approach and now have universal knowledge I would like them to get in touch.

I still always have my head in a book, but these days my aims are much less ambitious.

I just enjoy a good read.

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