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Annotation

January 10, 2003

Saturday morning, I hopped a fence, squinted into the sun, took two steps, and stumbled in a gopher hole.

Sunday morning, as I entered the kitchen on crutches, I saw that my wife had already anticipated my day on the couch watching football and surfing the Internet. She gave me a drawer full of stuff to sort. She wanted more storage for diapers (for granddaughter and associates), and I had letters in there dated 1996.

If I’d been mobile, I would have fled the house; thus, we might conclude that infirmity serves domestic tranquility. I have friends who quite frankly welcome sickness as a kind of forced respite from a busy life.

The drawer was interesting. I had letters from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Australia. I had a copy of an old letter to the county commissioners. A postcard from California of a string bikini mostly obscured by a female model. Guitar music, assorted notes, a bagel recipe, a book called “Zen guitar,” photocopies of a few interesting articles, two years of the Journal of Ethology and Sociobiology.

I found a January 2000 article from Harper’s Magazine, a fairly regular feature called “Annotation” in which someone annotates something: a secretly obtained memo, a magazine ad, or in this case two library records — an old catalog card and an electronic catalog record, both from Harvard University’s library.

The annotations compare the card to the electronic record, but in the process they also examine the history of libraries and the cataloging of knowledge.

A century ago, librarians and library users were as dubious about the card catalog as many today are about modern electronic catalogs. The catalogs were growing quite large, filling rooms, and the filing rules were becoming ever more arcane … necessarily so.

Cataloging human knowledge has been difficult for millennia. Even the Alexandrian libraries were overwhelmed by the volume. This led to the development of the “Canones,” which declared who were the finest authors in various subjects and thus who was worth keeping.

How could it not develop this way? No single person could hope to screen, much less assimilate, all that knowledge. Even the world’s largest library, the Library of Congress, is incomplete.

One of the problems with building a literary canon is the method of selection. The selection of a canon is tailor-made for authorities, expecially religious ones. Man has yet to escape the lure of knowledge by authority. In many ways, it’s easier to have someone tell you what is. Until you have a question.

Mankind’s greatest advances — political, economic, and technological — have come under systems of liberal science. It is a particular approach to deciding who is right. It includes the acquisition of knowledge by methods that do not recognize authority. Ultimately, the most experienced expert has no more authority than you or me when our ideas are put to the test.

We agree to test the “truth” in the marketplace of ideas, but we also agree that we never really arrive at the truth.

All knowledge is uncertain. Everyone is fallible. You see the conflict here with authority. Authority is quite certain and infallible.

In the long haul, you don’t find much improvement among people who aren’t free to question. Inevitably, they are subject to manipulation and deceit. You know the bumper sticker: “Question Authority.” It is good advice.

If you walk toward the blinding light of authority, you will stumble for sure. Break out your shades.

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