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.
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?