Adventures in Bookland: The Touchstone by Andrew Norriss


Go on ask me a question. Any question. You know you want to.

It can be anything, anything at all, and I’ll tell you the answer. Which stocks to buy, who will win the league, how to build a destructor death ray shooting pink plasm. All you have to do is ask, and I’ll tell you the answer.

I reckon I’d like to be able to do that – but then, I’m the sort of person who likes quizzes. My dream job would be as the Chaser on The Chase (which, if you don’t know it, is a daytime quiz programme where a team of four attempt to escape the Chaser, a professional quizzer, as the Chaser hunts them down: each time the contestants get a question wrong and the Chaser gets it right, he draws closer).

Sadly, I don’t even know enough to be the Chaser, let alone the Touchstone. Because the Touchstone really can answer any question you ask it. Any question at all. Including the one about how to make a destructor death ray shooting pink plasma.

Ah. So, perhaps not the sort of thing you want to give to just anyone. Quite right. But, the question is, who should you give it to? The Guardians? (They are, in fact, the Guardians of the Galaxy, only this version does not feature talking raccoons and ambulant trees but rather a somewhat ruffled civil servant.) Now, this is the first of Andrew Norriss’s books where I don’t think I agree with the answer. I’m not sure any institution could guard such knowledge since the knowledge would, in the end, corrupt the institution, leading the, in this case, Guardians, to see themselves as more important than that which they’re guarding, ie. everything else. It’s what happens to institutional bureaucracies over time. I’d much rather have Douglas, our 12-year-old hero, in charge of the Touchstone than the Guardians. I sort of think I’d even prefer the gung ho adventuress who gives him the Touchstone to have it. But then, there is one question that will answer with surety what your attitude to the Touchstone would be, and it’s the same question that was posed to Achilles: to have a long and happy life, or a short and glorious one.

When I was fourteen, I posed that question to my classmates and, to my surprise, received a unanimous reply: long and happy. I was the only one, at the time, who wanted glory and fame. I suspect that was because, to that point, I’d never really been unhappy, and, when you’re 14, the prospect of dying at 28 seems just as dim and distant as dying at 78.

The Touchstone is for those who want a long and happy life and, as I’ve got older, I have come to appreciate that much, much more. But, in our increasingly safety conscious world, I fear we lose something by giving no avenue for the young glory hunter: in previous ages he could sail off to strange lands, now there’s no such opportunity.

Another thought: with the internet increasingly omnipresent and omniscient, have we, in effect, given a Touchstone to everyone? If so, it’s chief effect seems to be a proliferation of cute cat videos and the further loss of personal memory; if everything can be called up, why bother to recall it? But, I suspect, memory is an underappreciated aspect of intelligence. We are currently applying a worldwide test to see if we can do without it. I suspect the answer will be no – and I don’t think I need the Touchstone to tell me that.

But I do need The Touchstone for another take on how to write a book without a single excess word or spurious phrase (like that one!).  Read it, tell others about it, answer questions on it. Make it your touchstone, if not your cornerstone.


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