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People’s U – meta unsolicited input

The other week, I got a phone call from someone who immediately expressed her intention to offer unsolicited input, then proceeded to beat around the bush talking about how libraries are underfunded and such. She described an illuminated map that we used to sell in the gift shop and advised that we start selling them again and require every school building in the state to purchase one and display it prominently for the edification of young minds. However, she continued to tell me, this was not her primary suggestion, which she did not begin to unveil until much more pounding in the vicinity of shrubs. Her unsolicited input was kindly offered, free to the library, with no expectation of monetary compensation. "Do you know of [incredibly famous historical local writer, one of whose characters is the namesake for our city football team]?" she asked me. Heh. I did. "You know his house? It's here in the city" Again, I did. "Well, he's very popular around here and people go crazy for anything about him. I was thinking that a lot of people would like a cookie jar shaped like his house. Don't you think so?" "Umm..." I replied. "Well, they don't have to put _cookies_ in it" she quickly continued, seeming to note my lack of enthusiasm for the idea. "They could put whatever they want in it. They could put it on their desk, actually. No one has enough space on their desk these days. They could put rubber bands and binder clips and other things in it." [no response] She vyed further for my approval. "The thing is, most cookie jars are made of ceramic, which is very fragile. So it's probably not good to make the jars of that. But I think something more sturdy, like bronze, would be good. Plus, his house is brown. I'm not sure if it was always brown or if they painted it that way after he died. But they might have kept painting it the same color to preserve its historical value. Anyway, if the cookie jars are bronze they will look more like his brown house." "Ah." I said. "Well. Um. I will pass this idea on to my superviser." "Well, don't you think it's a good idea?!?" she demanded. "It's, uuurm... very interesting" I offered weakly. "Ah, that um sort of thing... uh, merchandising, isn't my specialty. I'm really just here to look up information. I'll be sure to pass this along." "You could sell tons of them and make lots of money!"she proclaimed. "Wouldn't you want one for your desk?" "Um... my desk is very small and mostly I need to store papers and books on it," I said. "Well, MANY people would want it for their desks, I can tell you that much," she said. I did eventually get off the phone with her, after deflecting numerous further attempts to get me to declare her idea brilliant and taking her contact information so we could let her know when the jars had been manufactured and were ready for sale.

Koheleth: The Source of All Wisdom

Of all the works of the Bible, Ecclesiastes stands out as the most profound, probably because it is unlike any other chapter in either the Old or the New Testament. Written post-Exile, likely composed by a single writer, it is the greatest of all wisdom literature. It distills the essence of a deeply Hebraic worldview, which is why I prefer to refer to it by its Hebrew name, Koheleth, which means roughly "speaker to an assembly." What sets it apart from everything else in the Bible is its focus on mortality and the struggle of the here and now, rather than the otherworldly paradise to come. It preaches what are essentially pagan concepts, having more in common with the Stoics in many parts than with the early Jews or nascent Christians, although it is at its core a Jewish work. The writing is evocative and sonorous in the King James translation; a worthy rendering of what are universal truths orated by an idiosyncratic personality. I want to gesture at why Koheleth is one of the most important pieces of writing ever set down and why it remains a personal touchstone for my own life. Life is presented in Koheleth as a wonderous, but ephemeral gift, and the more one understands this, the more sorrowful and painful life becomes. This lies directly in constrast with the Christian tradition, which has always been more concerned with prudential wisdom, acting as a guide to good life and good works, its focus on how to maintain the straight and narrow path that leads to the Gates of Heaven. Christ's life is something to be emulated, serving as a guide for the Christian on how to live. Catholics have refined that instinct by creating constellations of saints, each serving as specific models for the believer. There is a "total wisdom" to be captured in the Christian tradition (with the exception of early gnostic writings and gospels), there is a final and complete wisdom that is excrutiatingly difficult to achieve, but resides as an endpoint and goal. The Hebraic wisdom, reaching its apotheosis in Koheleth, invokes a much different conception of wisdom. Wisdom, rather than being a propulsive force that pushes one towards a telos, is a murky pool that deserves endless and eternal rumination. Fate and fortune, randomness and chance, absent from any other part of the Bible, are embedded in Koheleth, introducing a painful awareness that life is often beyond are control, incomprehensible and remote, endless, yet brief. It is, as Harold Bloom puts it, the wisdom of annihiliation and Koheleth is the only sustained treatment of this essential truth. The first verse speaks more eloquently to Koheleth's designs than I ever could and I lay it here in its entirety and encourage the reader to speak it aloud, for it has the cadence of golden tongued oration.
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and haseth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth to the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done; and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing wherof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
There is no rememberance of former things; neither shall there be any rememberance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
The Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
That which is crooked cannont be made straight; and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.
I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem; yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.
And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly; I perceived that this is also vexation of spirit.
For in much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
This is harrowing language, obsessed with the dual and dueling impulses of life: to quest for knowledge and to succumb to death. One engenders the other, making this intertwining the very core of all meaning and creating the most fundamental paradox that lies at the hearts of all men: our greatest mandate while alive is to gain wisdom, but the more we accomplish this goal, the closer to annihiliation we arrive. I have ruminated on this passage many times and always find it illuminating. I want to return to an exegesis of Koheleth in the future, as this opening verse merely introduces a more sustained and particularized discussion of these initial concepts. But there is ultmately little I can say that will be of value, for all is vanity and the world neither remembers nor cares.

The Real D Wallz

I know a lot of you out there have been reading and enjoying my posts. Some of you do not enjoy them as much. A few think I am a racist, homophobe neoconservative. Well you wrong. I’ve decided to reveal the true D Wallz, which is a side most people don’t see often. I’ll point you to my website, Bet you’re pretty surprised at what you see. First off yes I am that handsome, I’m not vain about it, but I did get a lot of ass in my day. You’re probably asking yourself, Dave what made you start on your journey for enlightenment and made you want to teach others; well it’s easiest if I start at the beginning…

Back in the summer of ’97 I was a free wheelin’ son of a gun. I’d go to all night raves, take tons of ecstasy, kedamine, heroin, drain-o, pretty much whatever people would give me. I’d be up for days dancing to trance, jungle, techno, the noise my modem made while connecting to AOL, whatever. I’d also sleep with just about anything that came my way, women, men, animals, vegetables, minerals, gases, it didn’t matter I was so high I didn’t care what happened to me. But that all changed one fateful night out in the Nevada desert. I took a combination of pixie sticks, Windex, WD-40 and Dunkeroos. I started tripping like never before and wandered out alone into the desert.

I don’t know exactly how long I wandered, could have been days, but it felt like an eternity. Eventually I ran into my dear departed grandfather, Mortimer “Stovepipe� Waldman. He told me I needed to change my ways otherwise I would doom my immortal soul to be eternally trapped in the cycle of reincarnation, and my parents would cut off my trust fund. He said I needed to find my spirit animal and ask it for guidance. I thanked him for his advice and gave him some of my remaining Dunkeroos and began to wander again.

Eventually I came upon a Giraffe in the lone wilderness. I asked him, “Giraffe I come seeking enlightenment can you help me?� To which he replied, “No you want the Lemur, I’m just here on vacation with relatives.� I thanked him for his help and returned to my quest. Eventually I did find the Lemur and asked him how to find the path to enlightenment. He said, “The path you seek is not difficult to find, here read these books, listen to these tapes and watch these videos and all shall be known to you, also do you have anymore Dunkeroos?�

I did just that and spent the next several weeks engrossed in the materials he had given me. Truly they did change my life and set me on a path of enlightenment. And now the can all be yours! For a low, low price! Just visit my online store and get the wisdom you need now! Act now and I’ll throw in a special limited edition Lemur key chain. That’s right never has the path to enlightenment been so easy and affordable. Also check back for updates on my seminars where I tell you how to get rich by buying all your food over the internet. Peace be with you.

Dispatches from People’s U.

As a public reference librarian, I am privy to the information desires and delusional ramblings of innumerable citizens. Following are several slices of library life from my workday today. Ideally this can be an ongoing post topic. {slice 1} I received this question while staffing our chat reference service: "What about the top 10 murders in the U.S" {/slice 1} {slice 2} Later, one of our regular patrons was standing by the reference desk, plying me mercilessly with his incessant jibber-jabber. Asking me about how to get free space for a web page, he told me "I've never asked someone about this before. I think I should have a web page because I'm writing a book. I have five words I want to use so far. One of them is 'goatmeat.'" Addendum: Later, after talking to a librarian from another department, I learned that this fellow is currently intent on writing some sort of dictionary, in which light his comment made slightly more sense. {/slice 2}

Rich Kid Admits: Yesterday, Now, Forever

Inside Higher Ed recently ran an article reviewing Daniel Golden's new book, The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges - and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. Golden exposes the secret world of rich kid admits and the "sinister" pecuniary motives that drive such admissions. It is no secret that the parents of rich applicants have the capacity to donate a lot of money to a university. It is also no surprise that this process offends the sensibilities of most people, overturning the notions of meritocracy and diversity that supposedly drive the admissions process. It strikes one as manifestly unfair that a high school graduate can be accepted to an Ivy League university based not on their grade point average or test scores, but on the amount of money sitting in their parent's coffers. But, while this is unfair, it is also desirable. Universities are concerned with providing things like a quality education, a diverse and safe learning environment, and inculcating good values in future citizens. But what they are concerned about most of all, and what makes all those other desirable goals possible, is the size of their endowment. A primary source of funding for universities is fundraising from alumni, which is carried out all year. As many poor work study students can attest, the phones are manned every day in search of more alumni funding. Universities don't raise this money to enrich themselves at the expense of students, they raise this money to fund their academic and non-academic programs, to disburse funds to student groups, to pay salaries, and, most importantly, to off-set the money they lose when they provide merit- or need-based scholarships. If you doubt this, consider that most universities, and almost all the elite universities, are incorporated as non-profits, so they are constrained by state and federal law to not distribute any profit to their members, but to reinvest it in the organization. Ultimately, it is those need-based scholarships that allow the poor to attend elite colleges, thereby providing them an opportunity they deserve, but would otherwise not be able to afford. Setting aside a small percentage of total admissions to rich kids helps subsidize the scholarships that colleges would perhaps otherwise be unable to offer. We place a higher tax burden on high income taxpayers to help subsidize governmental programs. This is similar, except that it results in a benefit to the rich, rather than a burden. So I say, bring on the Richie Riches of this world, the undeserving sons of Croesus, the plutocratic heirs of Big Oil. They are probably pampered dolts and will perform terribly once they arrive, but I sure as hell am not giving any money to my undergrad. And anyway, someone needs to chair the Pan-Hellenic Council.