January 5, 2015 by libroshombre
The powerful 17th century French nobleman Francois de La Rochefoucauld made a sad commentary on his life when he wrote, “The only thing that should surprise us is that there are still some things that can surprise us.” Heck, if you’re not being surprised at life, you’re just not paying attention. English churchman Robert South, who was Rochefoucauld’s contemporary, was of a similar mind, saying, “Wonder is from surprise, and surprise stops with experience.” I disagree.
Once a small snail-sized object fell on my bare arm one summer evening in Austin. I brushed it away with a finger flick, but the thing turned out to be a tree asp, a venomous creature I’d never even heard mentioned. Soon the tip of my little finger began to hurt, then throb. Then, in quick progression, my hand, wrist, elbow, and shoulder followed suit. On my way to the hospital I wondered a lot. How bad can this get? What had happened? How can avoid it happening again? And more.
It encouraged learning about tree asps, AKA flannel moth or puss moth, and how they have “long, luxuriant hair-like setae, making it resemble a tiny Persian cat,” according to Wikipedia. I’d already discovered that those “hairs” contain poisonous spines “that cause extremely painful reactions in human skin upon contact.” That experience inspired subsequent wondering about potential creatures lurking in dark trees, and I know if I touch another tree asp that surprise will figure into it.
“Surprise,” dating from 1457, originally had purely military connotations, but by 1598 Shakespeare was using it to mean “the act of coming upon one unexpectedly,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Are you surprised to learn that Shakespeare invented the knock-knock joke in Macbeth, Act II, Scene iii? A Princeton University website (https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Knock-knock_joke.html ) generously defines the knock-knock joke as, a five line “roleplay exercise, with a punster and a recipient of wit.” A whole list of Shakespeare-related knock-knocks can be found at blog.ShakespeareGeek.com, including:
“Knock-knock.” “Who’s there?” “Noah.” “Noah who?” “Noah’s the winter of our discontent.” Or “Knock-knock.” “Who’s there?” “Arthur.” “Arthur who?” Arthur world’s a stage.” Shakespeare coined many popular phrases. An American Library Association list includes such Fairbanks-related ones as “Heart of Gold,” “fight fire with fire,” “catch a cold,” and “break the ice.”
Surprises come in many forms, some pleasant, some not, and we tend to find what we’re looking for. Expect half-empty, and you’ll probably find it that way. For example, take the library’s new self-checkout system. It’s new and different, and involves a brief learning curve, and that puts some people off. However, most library patrons are finding it speeds up the borrowing process considerably. It also greatly improves some of the “behind the scenes” operations necessary for a smooth-running library, such as allowing remote inventory scans instead of hand-pulling every book, and making the buying of expensive theft-proof DVD cases unnecessary.
Books have provided many of my best surprises. I’d never have become a librarian had I not read V.V. Bhatt’s “Sterility of Equilibrium Economics.” I was working for the State department in 1975 and had access to the World Bank Library, which had published this paper which made me wonder about the philosophical underpinnings of my studies of comparative international relations. This led two years later to reading “Social Science as Sorcery” by Stanislav Andrewski, which completed my disillusionment about the field. That led to a job in the Texas Legislature and meeting the director of the Texas Legislative Library, who suggested I go to library school and work for him. Then I came here and discovered Patrick O’Brian, my favorite author, whose work bears up nobly to re-reading. They’re beautifully written and interesting; every time I crack one of his novels I’m surprised by new insights.
Some folks have expressed surprise that the library’s webpage no longer carries these columns. Not to worry, archives of past columns are available at the NewsMiner.com and HillOfBooks.org websites. And the latter includes surprising illustrations. See what a super nova, a baby librarian, or a Surprised Stephen King look like! Boris Pasternak pointed out, “Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.” But it’s up to us to pursue it.