Monday, 3 September 2007

(Not Quite) Any Question Answered

One of the things I love about the internet is the wealth of information so readily available. In fact, it's so easy to find answers to basic factual questions I find myself quite amazed by the questions I still get asked, presumably by those old fashioned types who fancy a conversation with a real person. Tuh!* Under such circumstances it can be very tempting to direct the enquirer to this site (don't click if you're easily offended by rude URLs). What, however, do you do when your answer isn't on Wiki or easily Googleable? Or when net access isn't close to hand? Fortunately there is still a chance for the information-hungry to sate their appetites.

AQA (Any Question Answered) claims to be able to supply an answer to any question you text them (within reasonable boundaries), for a fee of £1 per text. It's pricey enough to deter them from being plagued with stupid questions, but affordable enough if you have a burning desire to find something out that otherwise eludes you.

The first time I used the service was two and a half years ago when I was going into dissertation meltdown and wanted somebody, anybody to help me figure out what to do with my data (I had been abandoned by my supervisor and books didn't seem to be helping.) The reply I got was probably sensible, but I was too brain-addled to really apply it. I haven't been in a situation where I've so desperately needed otherwise unobtainable information since then. But I thought of them today for some reason and decided to give them another try.

What to ask, though? Had to be something worth asking. And then I remembered a question that occurred to me a few months ago, to which I have yet to find a satisfactory answer. Having read 'A Tale of Two Cities' and 'Mrs Dalloway' in quite close succession, I was left pondering, why do some books have the phrase 'The End' at the end of them?** Surely it's obvious that it's 'The End', and the intelligent reader doesn't need to be told? Some theories Mrs Mc and I have come up with include:

  • It's a leftover from when novels were serialised in periodicals, before being published as books. Many of Dickens's works appeared in this way. Thus 'The End' would denote that this was the final installment of the story.
  • Something to do with the way books were produced on a printing press, to signal where the last page occurred.
  • A way of signifying the end of a lengthy text split over several scrolls.
  • A reflection of some custom that may exist in oral traditions of story-telling.
All plausible, but no easy way to find out if any of them are correct. So I sent the following message to AQA in the hope my query would be resolved:

When/where/why did the practice of writing 'The End' at the finish of a book commence?
About half an hour later a reply came through. Wahey! Now more wondering. Oh, but:
Sorry, AQA can't find why and when writing "The End" in books became standard. The printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in 1436

Gagh! Might be asking for a refund.

*I am, of course, joking. I can be sociable sometimes. And I do rather like playing information-detective for other people. I just don't like to be beaten by elusive facts!
**Spare me the smart alec remarks about putting 'The End' at the beginning being a stupid idea. ;-)

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