Serendipity and the Library
For me, a trip to the library is filled with temptation. I often walk out with more books than I can read in the allotted time and always more than I intended to borrow. I encounter the same thing in book stores (online and brick and mortar), often agonizing over which books I will buy, given my budget, and which ones I will put back for another time. I was taught by a teacher (Mr. LaMonica, in elementary school) to read broadly as a way to stay open to learning new things, some that I might not ordinarily have on my mind. In this way, he maintained, I would be learning as much if not more than I did through the school curriculum. Over time, I discovered that being a broad reader enabled me to acquire and apply knowledge and concepts across disciplines.
Many public libraries have from 10 to 50 books on display just past the entryway. These volumes are usually themed for various holidays and regional celebrations, like Fourth of July or Diwali; at other times the staff just fill the shelves with stuff they find interesting. I am always drawn to these displays and often pick up books I would not have encountered otherwise. If you don’t already, I recommend taking just a couple minutes to peruse these displays in your local library. If something seems even remotely interesting, borrow it and read a couple chapters to give it a chance. The more far a field of your usual reading list, the better.
When I look for a book in the stacks, I inevitably end up reading the spines of all the books near the one I am searching for. More often than not, I pick out the book I was initially looking for as well as three or four others I have spotted near by. For me, visiting a library is like searching for treasure among lots of other treasure. I can’t go wrong and there are lots of good distractions.
The last time I was in the library I stumbled upon a modernized Quran written and illustrated by Sandow Birk, et al. It was the size of the book that initially caught my attention. I happened upon this while I was looking for a book about Islam. I already had a copy of the Quran and did not consider looking for an alternative or more modern text. It turns out that this, rather huge book, has beautiful artwork and offers a unique and culturally appropriate interpretation of the Quran. By way of the modernized and westernized language, it makes it easier to read the suras and it provides alternative interpretations of many sections of the original religious text.
Sometimes I will walk up and down the aisles of the library, looking for nothing in particular, allowing serendipity to decide what I will read next. On one such occasion my eyes settled on a book that was laying face down on a shelf and to the side of the neatly shelved books. The back jacket had a picture of a wide eyed guy with long, wild hair springing out in every direction from his head and chin. We all judge a few books, at least initially, by their cover and this cover photo was so intriguing that I picked up the book. It was a mystery, The Void by Georges Perec, a book written entirely without the use of the letter e (the most common letter in english and many other European languages). This was the first time I encountered books by Georges Perec and I have been a fan of his work, as well as writings about the great author, ever since.
That exposure to Georges Perec led me to an interest in other experimental literature. A few of the cutting edge pieces I am glad to have discovered are: Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and S. By J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. Thank you, Georges Perec! The themes in the above meantioned books had me walking some odd sections of the library. One held books that led me down the garden path to the paranormal. Why not? As a result, I discovered the wondrous world of Mary Roach and her unique approach to science writing, by way of her book Spook, which touches on the paranormal in an attempt to understand the possibility of the afterlife.
There are websites and web applications that allow one to stumble across the internet and select random websites. But there is a lot of dubious, unfiltered content on the internet; whereas, the content at a library is curated, so there are not many books on grandma’s recipe for pimple cream or the best way to treat your cat’s fur ball. Wikipedia lets visitors push a button for random articles, but for some reason this does not feel the same.
Amazon, Netflix, Google, Facebook and many others have recommendation engines that use data analysis and predictive techniques to present you with options that they think you are likely to enjoy. Take Amazon. Their goal is to get you to buy more and to be as satisfied as possible with your purchases so you will keep what you order. Hence, they do not have a huge incentive to risk offering things that will broaden your horizons too much. Nothing they offer is arbitrary. The furthest they go is to compare you to other buyers with similar tastes and offer you things that those other buyers have purchased. In the end all that can result from this process is groups of buyers who pretty much purchase the same stuff. This does not lead to diverse choices within or across individuals of a group. I don’t believe that one can achieve a broadness of experience by way of these algorithmic recommendation engines. One has to inject some randomness and real world exposure to allow serendipity to play a role in life choices.
I think both the random internet site and the algorithmic recommendation approaches lack the visceral appeal and true serendipity of scanning the shelves and alighting on something unexpected. And I don’t want to leave all my horizon expansion to an algorithm designed to keep me comfortable. This is why I prefer to wander a library of physical books.
Try wandering a library some time. If you have kids, bring them along. Head to an interesting or completely new (to you) section of the library and walk the aisles reading the spines. Pull five books that you would not have thought to read, but which spark even the slightest interest. Take them back to a nook and peruse them. If you stay open minded, you’ll probably find at least one book (maybe more) that you want to take home and read more carefully. Sure, you will encounter stuff you just don’t want to read, because you already know you don’t like it for whatever reason. And, yes, there will be books that you read and just don’t enjoy or find useful. That will happen. However, by putting yourself out on that limb, you will give yourself a chance to grasp things you would not ordinarily see or be able to reach. And sometimes reaching blindly is a good idea. What you grasp in darkness and bring into the light will, many times, surprise and amaze you. If you have children this activity can instill in them a life long passion for wide reading. I think you will find that they read more, having discovered a broader range of interests.