What is news? To judge from the daily newspapers and TV bulletins, we can discard my favourite definition - that it is something someone somewhere doesn't want us to know.
Most of the time, powerful people do want us to know what's in the news. Astonishing events that burst into our consciousness with the impact of the 9/11 attacks in the US are rare. Most of the rest is just regurgitated speech, announcement or advertisement. Maybe that's why so many people don't seem to be paying much attention any more.
It is the genuinely unexpected that keeps us listening, afraid we might miss something. As historian Andrew Pettegree demonstrates in The Invention of News, very few of us can resist the urge to learn. It's an ancient hunger.
Pettegree credits the first proper newspaper to a German stationer in 1605, and the first front-page illustration -- an artist's impression of a battle in the Thirty Years' War - to a publication in Holland. The Reformation, the historian suggests, was Europe's first mass-media news event.
The Invention of News is a misleading title: events have always happened. What Pettegree is referring to is the reporting of events. It is a game in which life or death is determined by speed and trustworthiness. In 1900, Reuters in London knew about the relief of Mafeking in the second Boer war long before the military commander in South Africa was even aware of what had happened. Nowadays, no one enjoys a beat for much more than an instant or two.
Technology has eliminated time delays and now enables us to be virtually present at any event, almost anywhere. Enjoying lives of greater comfort and safety than ever before, we can be regaled in our own sitting rooms with mayhem or misery from most corners of the globe. But the more news there is, the less anyone really needs it. The result, too often, is paralysis - information overload. What are we to do with it all?
My advice? Find a good novel and go to bed.
Guardian News & Media