Saturday, January 12, 2008

Serendipity - does it influence what you read?

How do you decide what to read? Reviews, word of mouth, friends' recommendations? I know a lot of us gather up gems of books loved and recommended by fellow bloggers - I sure do. But do you ever have an experience where, say, you read a review of a book. Then you see someone reading it on the bus. And then, there it is, in the window of a book store or on display at the library. Do you take that as a sign and go with it? Or do you just shrug at the coincidence and keep walking?

I tend to take it as a message that yes, now is the time to read that particular book. It may be silly, but it always seems to work out well when I listen to my instincts and get the book. For example, the other day I was putting together titles for my annual Year's Best list at the library where I work. This is something I've been doing for five or six years now - I put out a little ballot box and some voting forms, and I ask people (adults and kids) to write down the most memorable book or books they read during the past year (doesn't matter when they were published). Then I compile them into a list with book summaries, and they can peruse the list for reading ideas. I get some great book recommendations that way myself!

Anyway, one of the recommended books was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I'd heard of the book but didn't know anything about it. When I read the book description in the library catalog, I thought it sounded interesting, but I didn't think any more about it. Then a day or two later, I read a post at Dark Orpheus's blog about Hugo winners. I wondered how many I had read (it turned out more than I expected) - but guess what book won the Hugo in 2005? Of course! Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. And then, to top it all off, a patron at the library happened to mention - completely out of the blue, that the audio version of Jonathan Strange was one of the best audio books she'd ever heard!

This is just a recent example, but things like that happen to me all the time. Does anyone else choose reading material this way? I have, of course, added Jonathan Strange to my list - and I think I'll try the audio book while I'm at it. Do you have any fun book serendipity stories? If so, I'd love to hear them!

By the way, the wonderful illustration above was done by David Wiesner as the poster for Philadelphia's first annual book festival (in 2007). I love it!


  1. I definitely read according to serendipity ;) Happens all the time. Most of my reads come from other reviews, etc. But there are many books that just keep jumping in front of my face until I have no choice but to read them! JS&MN is great, but my advice to you is stick with it!! It's a little slow at first, but as a whole it's a wonderful book and her writing is just exquisite. Part of the joy of that whole book for me was just her use of language. Enjoy!

  2. I make decisions on what to read that way, too. I think that what's really happening is that once a book sticks in your head as something that you want to read, even if you don't realize that the book has stuck in your head, you notice other evidence in it's favor as you go about your business. But it's still fun to watch for it, and follow it.

    The other thing that I've noticed is that sometimes I'll pick out, say, three or four books from my stack to read on a trip, pretty much at random (or so I think). Then I'll read them and discover that they all have some major theme in common. It's freaky.

  3. That hasn't actually happened to me, no, but I am inclined to agree with Jen. It's sort of like when you learn a new word and then in the next week or two it keeps popping up everywhere. That has happened to me countless times!

    Anyway, if it happened I think it'd be intrigued enough to pick up the book and read it, yes.

    You have to read Jonathan Strange! From what I know of your taste, I think you'll really enjoy it. Like Chris said, the start is a bit slow paced, but the language and the ambience are delightful from page one.

  4. Serendipity is the universe signalling to you. One must obey the universe. I say, put Jonathan Strange on your reading list now. ;p

    I saw Jenclair's review for "The Spanish Bow" once, and I thought, "A story of a cellist set in Spain. Sounds good."

    Then I saw the book in a catalogue, and I thought, "Looks familiar."

    Then a blogger asked for recommendations on Spain related reads. I googled and "The Spanish Bow" came up as something I might like to try.

    Then I read another review on another blog. And I said, "Okay, if I see another good review for it, I'm reading the book."

    Same week, I wandered into the library and lo and behold, "The Spanish Bow" was staring at me in the face in the New Arrivals section.

    I think the universe is trying to tell me something about "The Spanish Bow". So I HAD to read it.

  5. I've had that experience a couple of times myself and I usually do "follow the signs" and read the book in question. I can't say that I've ever been steered wrong!

  6. Chris - it is funny, but I don't know how that book stayed out of my radar so long. It's everywhere now! I pledge to stick with it. I'm definitely looking forward to reading it!

    Jen - I think you are right about the way it works, and it is a lot of fun. And the same thing happened to me when I went on vacation last summer. I somehow ended up with three books that dealt in some way with faerie, although I hadn't realized that when I grabbed them to bring with me. I'm glad I'm not the only one that happens to!

    Nymeth - maybe now that we've brought up the subject it will start happening to you, too! :-) I don't mind a slow start if the payoff is good, but it's good to know that going in.

    Dark Orpheus - Well? Did you like The Spanish Bow? I sure hope so. Otherwise it would have been an awful letdown! I loved your book serendipity story - it must have felt strange to find the book staring you in the face like that! And yes, the universe must of course be obeyed. :-)

  7. Well I haven't had much luck with the Washington Post book world section, so now I go to Barnes and Noble and generally bring up a book I like and see what others bought, in similar style.

    ps - my library system didn't Colleen Gleason...I really wanted to read those vampire books, bummer.

  8. "The Spanish Bow" was a wonderful read -- but I read it slowly, because I keep putting it down to play some cello music. It's a book that NEEDS a soundtrack and makes one curious about the cello and art in Spain.

    It was definitely an experience.

  9. Ladytink - that's the thing - somehow it always seems to work out that it's the right book at the right time, when there's that mysterious forces thing involved. (Insert Twilight Zone dee dee dee music here.)

    VA Gal - I'll get you copies of the Gleason books the next time you come out this way. Our system didn't have them either, and I asked someone in collections management if they'd consider ordering them, and they did! Our website has a link to an online form where you can request books, so you might try that, too, if yours has one. I know we really do try to purchase what people request, unless it's some obscure academic textbook or something.

    I have more luck with Book World when it comes to kids' books for some reason. They don't tend to review the kinds of adult books I usually read.

    Orpheus - I love the image of you playing your own sound track to the book you were reading! My 3rd grader started playing the cello this year, and she seems to be enjoying it. It's a bit beyond me - I played flute and bassoon in high school, and I still play piano so I can help her with that, but when it comes to cello I'm totally clueless. In a way it's good, I guess, that it's kind of her own thing to master in her own way. Do you have any favorite cello recordings that you think might appeal to a young beginning cellist?

  10. I still think it's weird that I read three books in this past week in a half that all have mythological gods and goddesses in them!

  11. Oh, I know just what you mean - and it happens when you least expect it. My problem is that later on I tend to get them confused with each other (I kind of did that reading Tithe and Wicked Lovely so close together).


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