Serendipitous Reading

books laid higgledy piggeldy on the floor

Some of the books I have found on discount tables and in secondhand bookshops over the last year.

Much is said about the importance of serendipity for research in the humanities. People extol the rewards gained from unexpectedly finding a relevant and fruitful book sitting on a bookshelf near the book that they had been initially seeking in the library.  This year I am no longer a student so I decided that I would read more broadly than I have in recent years. While I still have to be focussed in my reading for work, I have deliberately sought to increase my serendipitous reading.  In particular I wanted to read more about the aspects of history that I had either not been able to explore at university or if I had been able to I had not been able to read as much as I would have liked.  There are many, many historic themes and topics that fall in this category. Rather than systematically working my way through a carefully constructed list of reading, I decided to let serendipity govern and see where it would take me!

Libraries are not the only site of serendipity. For relaxation my other half and I enjoy visiting secondhand bookshops.  It is like a treasure hunt.  We never know what we might find.  Unlike regular bookshops I cannot walk into a secondhand bookshop with a list of books that I want and expect the bookshop to have them.  However, I love finding a great book that I never knew existed just waiting for me to give it a good home.  I have also enjoyed rifling through cast away books in the rare discount bookshops that hold quality stock.  Our university bookshop has excellent sales after each mid-semester break which I also make a point of attending.

But the act of buying a book doesn’t mean that it is read.  Over the last few years I have made some great purchases, but I have been so busy with my university reading I have not had a chance to read those books I purchased unless they focussed on the issues I was studying.  My bookshelves are bursting with unread books.  At the beginning of the year I banned myself from visiting any more bookshops until I had made a significant dent in the pile of books I already had.

Where to start?  I shuffled the books around in my shelves and realised that there was a bit of a pattern.  There were some books about the influence of Islam on pre-Enlightenment Europe, some on the history of China and others on various revolutions in the West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries aside from many relating to various themes in the history of Australia. I have finished the books on the first two topics and am now reading about the Enlightenment and the revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Serendipitous reading is an unknown ride with deviations and bumps along the way.  While I can check for footnotes, reputation of the author, general content etc before I purchase a book, I cannot be certain whether the book will meet the standards I expect of a good history or excite me.  On the whole I have been pleased with my selections.  My horizons have been broadened and I have finished all the books I set out to read.  Even if a book has disappointed me somewhat it still has raised issues for me to ponder.

Cover of John Keane's biogrpahy of Tom Paine.One book that was a standout was John Keane’s Tom Paine:  A Political Life.  Keane’s assertive approach is what the biographical subject himself demands.  Tom Paine was loud with his opinions and did not modify his views or his approach even when the tumultuous times in which he lived demanded it.  His writing had a significant impact on people during the American War of Independence, attracted the wrath of the authorities in Britain and gained for him both celebrity and retribution in France.  His life offers so much to the biographer – it is a wonder that there have not been more biographies written about him.  As well as having intellectual depth, Paine’s life was full of drama and Keane captured this well.  If nothing else you must read about Paine’s escape from execution at the height of the violence in the aftermath of the French Revolution – a gripping tale!

Serendipity in the Virtual World

The serendipity that I am talking about is the old-fashioned, walk up to the bookshelf variety.  It is fun being in a physical space that is designed to provide this experience.  With the transformation of book selling and libraries that is happening while we speak, many have felt anxious that serendipity will whither.  I believe that there will always be physical spaces in which serendipity in our reading will occur.  They may be different physical spaces to those in which it occurs today but it will still be there.  If nothing else, we will continue to develop friendships which involve us being in the same room together and our work will continue to require us to meet others whether they be our colleagues or clients.  The terms of these relationships and the places where we meet may differ from those today but we will continue to interact in some common place.

Serendipity has undoubtedly increased with the advent of social media.  Recommendations for reading fly around cyber space through twitter, Facebook, LibraryThing, Delicious….  Even e-mail is a vehicle through which recommendations and news of books travel. Our family would never have started reading Harry Potter as early as we did if we hadn’t been living in country Queensland, bereft of bookshops that sold books about computer programming.  My other half resorted to purchasing computer texts through Amazon in the late 1990s and saw that the top-selling books were Harry Potter books.  Curious, he ordered a couple and our family were hooked.  Of course this is the serendipity of the fame begets fame variety.  Just as important is the chance discovery of more obscure items.

Libraries and the Serendipity Challenge

The serendipity that people seem to feel most anxious of losing is the unexpected find on the library shelf.  In many libraries books are being moved to off-site storage or to some sort of mechanised book retrieval, thus depriving patrons of the ability to walk up to the shelf.  It is easy to retrieve books in these libraries, but you have to be specific about the book you want. Using a catalogue to browse books that are located in proximity to the book ordered is not good as seeing them on the shelf and flicking through them.

Remote storage of books has brought renewed attention to library catalogues. Catalogues have to do more than they did in the past. They do allow for serendipity through search facilities but patrons also want to retain the old-style ‘bookshelf’ type of serendipity.  Why can’t we build catalogue systems that does this?  Perhaps they do, but the interface is not intuitive enough for the general public to access this facility.

What is your experience of serendipitous reading?  Do you know of a library catalogue that meets the serendipity challenge – that fosters the chance discovery of fruitful books without the patron browsing the bookshelves?

13 thoughts on “Serendipitous Reading

  1. I stumbled upon your post through the Readomatic feature and it caught my attention. I’m a lover of libraries. Recently I happened to find a copy of Prep by Curtis Sittenfield. It was one I had thought of reading but I wasn’t actively searching for it as I was for the Stieg Larsson trilogy. Another reader had mentioned What Alice Forgot and I found it in the large print section.

    I think the lack of serendipity in catalogue comes from the types of categories it is filed into. The human mind does not seem to compartmentalize genres in the way catalogues do.


    • It is great when someone you meet introduces you to a great book. Libraries seem to be gettting better at facilitating this type of exchange by allowing people to talk in libraries – I love it! The library as a meeting place seems to be something that libraries are trying to encourage which is great.

      Catalogues are a product of the human mind. I think the issue is that there is great diversity amongst the human minds in our society – as there should be. Categorising is tricky – what works for one just doesn’t work for another. This makes me think that we should move beyond categorising. I love tags. You can add as many tags to a book as you want whereas books generally can only be filed in one category. Categories to me are a remnant of the physical world. A book could only be placed in one physical space. Each book could be filed under a number of different categories but the librarian could only choose one category under which to file it.

      I could go on… Thankyou for your comment, it certainly has made me think!


      • Hi,
        Not wanting to be overly negative, because there are solutions, but I have an opposite experience of people talking in libraries. I find it disruptive and against the whole idea of a library. All those silent voices on the shelves, speaking from the ages, and often those who go to the library to talk have no interest in the books at all.


      • Thankyou Peter for putting forward a different view. I find absolute silence very difficult to work in. It might seem strange but I find it distracting and I find it very difficult to concentrate. However, I appreciate that people are a diverse lot and that some have the opinion that you do, that libraries should be silent places. Libraries need to cater for all sorts of people so it is important that they have some silent areas for people that prefer that type of environment, but they also need to have space for collaboration which means that people need to hold conversations while researching. However, it would be difficult for librarians to police these conversations and restrict libraries to those wishing to converse about the information contained therein.


  2. My university has just limited potential for these serendipitous experiences by putting all the books in an automated retrieval system. They’ve tried to mimic the potential for serendipity in the catalogue by putting a display of book spines proximate to the searched book on the search results, but I often find I need to read the Contents page or the index to know if a book is of value to me. The title isn’t enough. Having said that, it’s simply a matter of adapting to a new environment, and often computers throw random results out of a catalogue which seem out of place but strangely fortuitous. Serendipitous reading is an example of why reading is such a fantastic way of learning and discovering. It is symbiotic in its mysterious way (one’s relationship to the world of letters) and sometimes I think it’s bordering on the spiritual, to use a contentious word.


    • Could you provide a link to your university’s library catalogue? I am interested to see how it works. I agree that being able to view the spine of a book is not enough. People who browse the shelves first look at the spine, then if they see something that looks interesting they pull the book out and look at the table of contents.


  3. I completely agree that serendipity is the “x-factor” in research, no matter how much of a reaserch old-hand you are. Yes, second-hand bookshops, and especially, library shelf-browsing, are the main lucky hits along with browsing endnotes and bibliographies. Perhaps in future, the large off-limits collections such as NLA, the state libraries, and yes, now the university libraries who have cleared out their libraries to make way for study carrels, could provide a technology a bit like Google streetview: that the catalogue browser can be enabled to allow a virtual walk along the aisles, based on seamless photography done within the stack collection. Entry point would be the location of the your current search result, but then it is unlimited, you could explore the enire floor if you like, and can zoom in and select any other title you see in the shelf image.


    • I agree that it would be good if library catalogues could replicate the type of serendipity encountered in a stroll amongst the shelves. I think the new Macquarie University Library catalogue does the best job I have seen of this with their “browse this shelf” facility. First you have to access the catalogue item for a particular book, then scroll down the page to the “browse this shelf” section for the titles that are on the shelf around the item you chose. Do you think this interface does the job?


      • Right, yes, I hadn’t seen a pictorial version of the text-based ‘browse this shelf’ function, which I have noticed in a few catalogues. Commercially though, Amazon is probably the master at this kind of pictorial presentation of ‘books you might also like’. I suppose Macquarie’s could be enhanced if it similarly linked to the images of real book covers, collected e.g. in entries. Or maybe it does. But what is it about seeing real books, that allows some kind of intuition about content? Judgement of age from the binding, slimness/thickness, quality of binding, title of course, and no doubt more, all sum in a flash of intuition to reach out to another folio near the one you’d originally sought. Without being to actually leaf through the book, at least until Google Books or like finds a niche here, how at least can that initial tactility be reproduced? A G.E. Streetview style of approach (Shelfview? StackView?) might get a little closer.


      • That’s spot on, Ian. Once you’ve spent alot of time with books, you get a feel for them by their covers and so on, and can actually search out what you on a shelf by thinking along the lines of publishing dates and binding styles and so on. There is none of that on the computer. Perhaps it’s a good thing, though, levelling the playing field in a way to the words alone.


  4. Hi, none of your messages from the past two months came through to me even though I checked a short while ago, but one did just now. I’m glad you found Macquarie University library’s catalogue without my help. I had a ‘tour’ of the Automated Retrieval System at MU the other day, and was very impressed – it looks like a cross between a morgue and a space station. Given that Sydney University and UNSW have been tossing books out in the last couple of years, the MU Library’s capacity for another million or so books is very promising. I think the moving interface is quite effective too, and goes some of the way towards substituting for the browsing experience. I still think that it is no substitute for a glance across a whole shelf, or down shelves, but it’s definitely far better than nothing.

    With regards to the idea of having sections of libraries which are silent and some which are ‘speaky’, they’d have to be totally separated from each other in my opinion. I get infuriated when I’m on a deep train of thought and someone answers their phone or interrupts. I have also found that some people, taking advantage of lax policies towards silence, deliberately set out to distract, maybe hoping they can drive away readers altogether and convert the whole space into something else. Municipal libraries are, after all, often occupying prime real estate.



    • We went on the same tour of the new Macquarie Librayr retrieval system. I chuckled at your description of it looking like “a cross between a morgue and a space station”. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but I don’t think that books are dead or even dying!

      I don’t think that people “deliberately set out to distract” in libraries. Rather, I think they simply do not think about the impact their actions have on those around them. I think that if a library has a silent section then the library should actively enforce that rule. Over time they will need to do less enforcing as the culture of the silent section will be established, like at the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

      Sorry my comments didn’t get through to you – probably a WordPress issue. Keep checking my blog – as you can see there are always new comments and posts.


  5. I’ve been putting the robots to work and they’ve only found books so far…
    Sound travels through air, so you’d have to have walls at least. I don’t think librarians know how to express serious disapproval of chatters. I was taught that researching and reading in silence is the traditional library culture, and so it is not being transmitted effectively. Unfortunately some people do set out to distract or disrupt (for whatever reason), I’ve experienced it, and you can tell from the person what their intention is.
    Last time I was at the Mitchell, a few weeks ago, there were school kids whispering away among themselves at our table. You know the acoustics of the place, and how noisy a whisper can be! I try to be tolerant and remember what I was like as a young person though.:-)

    It must have been WordPress, because I checked a week or two ago, and saw nothing extra apart from what I’d written. I assumed the blog was unattended, so unsubscribed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.