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Chance and the bibliophile

Old-fashioned bookstores and libraries are much more likely to provide accidental discoveries.  

A few years ago, when I bought my first e-book on Kindle, I was indeed awestruck by what seemed to be sheer magic. Within seconds of pressing, “Pay in Rupees”, the book was delivered to my device, word for word. Without my having to leave my seat, I could now have a veritable collection, literally in my hand, within minutes. Yet, despite the ease and convenience of shopping for books online, I feel a whiff of nostalgia every time a brick and mortar bookstore downs its shutters. Even though the same books are now available online, browsing through bookstores and libraries has a distinctive flavour and an ineffable quality that cannot be replicated in the virtual world.

Random encounters

The act of chancing upon a book serendipitously is much higher in a traditional bookstore as we often walk down aisles that house books that are not related to our usual interests. But as we do so, a book may call out to us and soon enough we may be leafing through its pages, intrigued by its contents. Thus, you may go to a bookshop with the intention of buying a sociology book. As you meander down the narrow aisles, making sure you don’t topple books that are precariously arranged on shelves, your eyes spy a gardening manual. A few months ago, you had told yourself that you might want to start a small terrace garden but had forgotten about the idea. The green leafy manual in front of you now rekindles your desire to liven up your apartment. Before you realise it, you are at the billing counter, buying two glossy gardening magazines. The sociology book can wait.

While we can find unexpected books online too, the probability is much slimmer because computer algorithms are designed to match people based on their previous searches and purchases. Search algorithms link people based on their interests, but very often we have latent proclivities that we ourselves are only dimly aware of. Sometimes a random, chance encounter can steer us down unchartered paths.

So, online, if you have been searching for sociology books earlier, you are likely to be led to other books on related topics. I am not denying that this, too, is an extremely valuable tool. Knowing what other like-minded customers also bought can lead us to explore a topic fairly deeply.

However, the chances of you stumbling on a book on gardening online when you are looking for a sociology one is close to nil.

Of course, if you deliberately search for greening books, you will definitely find a plethora of them. But the point of serendipitous discoveries is finding things that you are not looking for.

The pull of libraries

Old-fashioned bookstores and libraries are much more likely to provide accidental discoveries. In fact, when I was a doctoral student and had to check out journals from the library in the pre-Internet days, I had to will myself not to spend too long in the dusty stacks as I would often be drawn by books that were completely unrelated to my area of study. In fact, a book I chanced upon prompted me to enrol in a course outside my discipline.

Further, our curiosity often works in mysterious ways. We don’t always know what draws us towards a book — it could be the theme, the unusual sounding author’s name, the title or the cover of a book that takes our fancy.

But a chance encounter with a book can indeed have an impact on our lives. A book on anger management may stop you in your tracks. Reading it may change the way you relate with your kids or spouse. Or, a book on gemology could goad you to change your field of study or consider a mid-career switch. You may not even know that quilting is a pastime for many folks until the symmetrical patches on the cover of a book vie for your attention. Of course, every book is not going to lead to life alterations, either great or small. However, finding a book that speaks to you, be it fiction or non-fiction, is in and of itself an experience that every bibliophile cherishes. Book lovers often develop deep relationships with books. And good old bookshops offer us a chance to cultivate an unknown facet of ourselves.

Even though we may witness the decline and possible demise of traditional bookshops and libraries, we must try and find ways to have serendipitous experiences. Even if online retailers surprise us by making ‘serendipitous’ recommendations, I am sure their suggestions will be driven more by market forces rather than a desire to truly provide random pickings. After all, the whole point of serendipity is that we cannot plan or schedule these encounters, but we need to remind ourselves to periodically wander along unknown paths. As physician and author Siddhartha Mukherjee, writes, “Most discoveries even today are a combination of serendipity and of searching.”

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 2:16:38 AM |

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