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The Sunday Salon: Whatever Happened to Serendipity?

The Sunday Salon.com Whenever I say the title of this post in my head, I sing it to the first line of the Full House theme song, “Everywhere You Look”: “Whatever happened to predictability?” Dork alert.

But anyway, that’s not what this post is about. Last week, Steph (Steph & Tony Investigate) posted a review of You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chanon. In the review, she included this story about how she came to buy the book:

As you know, 2011 is my year of reading from my own shelves, so I figured the best way to kick things off would be to pick up the book that I has possibly lingered on those shelves for the longest. I think I’ve owned You Remind Me of Me for at least five years, though it certainly feels like longer. I remember picking it up in hardback off of a remainder table at the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, and I’m sure the sticker proclaiming it “seulement $9.99” was a large incentive … I’m sure the premise of intermixed storylines of seemingly unrelated characters that eventually unite into a meaningful and breathtaking whole played some part, but dollars to donuts it was the price that really sealed the deal for me.

I recognized myself, at least a former version of myself, in this story — the kind of girl that goes into used bookstores or clearance sections not really looking for anything, just exploring what is there. I loved both the feeling of finding a book I’ve wanted for awhile unexpectedly, or picking up something I didn’t even know I wanted to read. I did the same thing at the library. I never had books on hold for me, I simply went and wandered the stacks and came out with a pile of books to explore when I got home.

In both of those places, there was this sense of serendipity in finding an unexpected treasure, a book I would have never know about if I didn’t happen to pick it up in that time and that place.

I am most certainly not that kind of girl anymore, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

On the one hand, a lot of the books you’re going to find in the $1 bins at a bookstore are there for a reason — the store had to many copies, it didn’t sell, or it just isn’t very good. I probably couldn’t count the number of cheap books I’ve bought, considered reading, and then ended up giving away or selling back. I wish I’d kept track, since I’m sure the waste of money on things I never used would be sobering and kick my nostalgia for serendipitous reading in the butt.

But on the other hand, isn’t it sort of exhausting to walk into a bookstore and have a constant running commentary of, “Oh, I read a review of that!” or “Oh, So-and-So blogger told me that was great!” running through your brain? Don’t get me wrong — I love reading reviews and adding more books to my potential to-read list, but you guys are always in my head!

In the midst of reading the five nonfiction picks for the Indie Lit Awards — which are all awesome, and I do not regret a single one — and a series of scheduled books for review, I’m feeling this deep nostalgia for going back to being the kind of person that explored more, that went into books as a blank slate, that bought books she didn’t know anything about just because of the unknown awesome they might hold.

I went to the library earlier this week to pick up two books on hold and seriously contemplated going up to the second floor and just wandering the fiction section. But I didn’t — I was running late to make dinner, and, given my recent library book behavior, I was pretty confident whatever I checked out would just get returned three weeks from now unread because it got bumped for books that were “more important” or that I was more confident I’d love reading because I know something about them already.

I love knowing about the books I choose, and knowing that I can recommend books to people I care about because of all the good books I read about every day. But all that knowing about books is slowly taking away the space in my reading life I used to devote to books that would be complete surprises. I’m left wondering whatever happened to my serendipity?

Am I the only one who misses serendipitous reading? Was that ever important to you? What ways to you bring more unexpected or unknown books into your reading life?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Aarti January 16, 2011, 9:25 am

    Now I have the Full House theme song in my head! Thanks a lot 😛

    I think in many ways I agree with you. I don’t read as serendipitously any more, either. I wonder if that is just a function of me growing up? I don’t browse the shelves and just pick up any book that appeals to me so much any more. It’s sad. But then again, my bookshelves are full of books I PREVIOUSLY purchased serendipitously, so reading those shouldn’t be so bad, I hope 🙂

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:13 pm

      Aarti: I had it in my head all day!

      I do have quite a few books I bought serendipitously still on my shelves, I just feel like I never get the chance to read them. I should just make more of a point to pick them up, or spend more time at the library 🙂

  • Trisha January 16, 2011, 9:32 am

    I very much miss serendipitous reading; although my guess is that 90% of the time, that unknown, randomly found book, turned out to be a DNF. I do miss the awesome finds though.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:15 pm

      Trisha: I think that’s definitely true — lots of random books ended up being not very good, I’m just being nostalgic right now, I think!

  • Jeane January 16, 2011, 9:34 am

    I still like hunting through those dollar bins just for the unexpected surprise. But you’re right, way too many times I bring the books home only to find months later when I finally do read them, that they are just lame. And then I wonder why I wasted my time digging for them… but every once in a while I still find something wonderful I’d never heard of before! Browsing the library shelves still does this for me too.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:16 pm

      Jeane: I love looking through them still, but I’ve been doing a lot better not buying them since I don’t need any more books in my apartment. I want to use the library more — I think that would suppress the urge and then I wouldn’t feel so bad because I wouldn’t be wasting money!

  • Colleen (Books in the City) January 16, 2011, 9:42 am

    Great post! I struggle with the same challenges and my overflowing bookshelves are the evidence! I am trying in 2011 to really focus on good quality books that I have been meaning to read – I know that doesn’t smack of serendipity but I hope it brings more joy to my reading!

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:17 pm

      Colleen: Thanks 🙂 I think that sounds like a great plan for 2011, and I think it should make some great reading for you.

  • Caitie F January 16, 2011, 9:55 am

    I don’t know how much I miss that – I tended to get recommendations in years before I read blogs or found authors I loved and read all of their books.

    I try to wander in the library, but I know how many books are in my TBR pile and list and tend to stick to it!

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:18 pm

      Caitie F: I must have gotten recommendations before blogging, I just can’t think of where from or what books for. I really did read a lot more randomly then.

  • Melissa January 16, 2011, 10:50 am

    Love this post … and I can definitely relate to and appreciate this. When at the library, I always gravitate to the New Books shelf and tend to remain there. I’d forgotten how much I love browsing through the library stacks.

    One day when I was there with Betty, she wanted to start reading one of her books while sitting at the desks, and I realized that if I browsed the fiction stacks, I could still keep her close in sight. So this has become part of our library routine … and I love it. One of my best reads of 2010 (Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peele) was discovered that way.

    I’m starting to embrace the browsing the stacks again … if anything, it helps alleviate some of my guilt on taking 5 books from the New Books shelf every week! 🙂

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:20 pm

      Melissa: You always have great library book piles when you post about them — I’m jealous! I love the story about going to the library with Betty, it sounds like such a great routine for both of you.

  • Lu January 16, 2011, 10:58 am

    It doesn’t always happen this way, but like you saw on my blog, I just found a great book serendipitously. But I don’t think being more discerning in the books you read is a bad thing. A little serendipity here and there is great, but having all those recommendations in your head is a good thing too!

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:21 pm

      Lu: You’re right; being discerning and having a sense of what books might be good is a really good thing. Many of my best books from last year were ones I got from bloggers or reading recommendations. I think it’s a mix of the two, and I just haven’t quite found it yet.

  • Christina January 16, 2011, 11:27 am

    I spent my winter break reading only from my TBR pile/list. I do miss just going to a bookstore and/or library and just selecting books at random, but I do think that because of book blogging I read more widely. I used to read the back catalog of an author and insist on buying their latest books, but I don’t really feel like I have the time to do that anymore. And I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing or not.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:23 pm

      Christina: That’s a great point; I do think I read more widely than I used to. As a kid I read mostly fantasy, and I read a lot more than that now. I definitely don’t read as many older books as I used to read, and I do miss that.

  • Libellule January 16, 2011, 11:39 am

    I’m a new blogger, so I don’t experience quite what you do, but I do feel something similar. I used to visit overstock book stores frequently, browse for hours, and end up with a nice stack of (mostly) previously unheard of books. I found a number of great books and authors this way (it’s how I discovered David Foster Wallace in high school!), but also a lot of mediocre ones. I miss the random discoveries sometimes, but I only have so much time to read, and I’d like to spend it on books that are already vetted (so to speak), in that I’ve heard of them before, they were recommendations, or I found then randomly browsing the internet and they seem like my kind of book. If you think about it, browsing the internet for books is not *so* different than browsing a bookstore, in that many books can be previewed for free (like on Amazon) and you can read all the plot summaries, blurbs etc online. I think it could maybe be called serendipity when you come across a review or mention of a book you’ve never heard it, and then you read it and love it. I’ve found a ton of books using the internet that were previously unknown to me, but that I now love and treasure.

    Sorry for the long comment!

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:26 pm

      Libellule: You sound just like I used to be! I loved doing that. You make a good point — it’s nice to have vetted books to read, rather than never really being sure what I should pick next. I don’t spend a lot of time browsing online, but I suppose browsing blogs is a little similar.

      And no need to apologize for the long comment — thanks for taking the time!

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) January 16, 2011, 1:16 pm

    I know what you’re getting at and I do miss it at times, but others times, I’m so glad to have so much reading material around me.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:27 pm

      Kathy: That’s exactly it — sometimes I miss it, and sometimes I’m really glad I know about so many good books.

  • Teresa January 16, 2011, 2:22 pm

    I know what you mean. I was never one for picking up books I hadn’t heard anything about–that never seems to go well. However, I used to always run across books in the library and bookstore that were sort of familiar but that I wasn’t planning on reading right then. And I’d then decided to take them home and read them *right away.* I miss doing that. I love having a supply of books in the house, but now I feel committed to those and not the books that put themselves serendipitously in my path. It’s one of the reasons I want to clear my shelves more.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:28 pm

      Teresa: I miss bringing books home and reading them as soon as I buy them. I hardly ever do that anymore, since I’m committed to the pile like you are. I’m hoping to clear my shelves more this year so I feel less pressure, too.

  • Ash January 16, 2011, 3:03 pm

    I do and I don’t. When I was more of a fly by the seat of my pants reader I read a lot less than I do now and I made a lot more bad book choices. I probably read more books I’m lukewarm about now, but I’m reading more books in general so I have more chances to find a book I really love. What I miss more is finding a book, loving it, and being the first to recommend it to someone else. It’s hard to get there first in the blogging world.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:47 pm

      Ash: That’s another good point – I do read a lot more now than I did before, and that’s a good thing. I’ve been getting more and more recommendation requests from friends in real life, so I think that’s satiated my need to pass on good books 🙂

  • Jenny January 16, 2011, 4:30 pm

    Hahaha, I can’t even express how much I DO NOT miss serendipitous reading. I do not like going into books with no idea of what to expect — one of the most enduringly good things about having a book blog and reading all of y’all’s book blogs is that I now know what to expect from a much huger number of books than ever before. I almost never buy books — even bargain books — without knowing what they’re about and feeling fairly certain I will want to keep them forever.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:50 pm

      Jenny: You’re a much more responsible book buyer than I am! I buy books all the time that I’m not sure about — I should really get them from the library instead. I’m glad you don’t miss serendipitous reading — it makes me feel a bit less nostalgic about it!

  • Sheila (Bookjourney) January 16, 2011, 4:35 pm

    GAH! I didn’t realize I missed serendipitous reading until you mentioned it…. now I do. LOL

    I think I like a mix and I try to do a mix…. I do take time to wander the shelves of the bookstores and my library. I watch the “just in” selections and like today – I found a book at Wal-Mart that I had never heard of but read the back and had to have it.

    I too have the voices in my head of “bloggers past reviews” and I am thankful because I have read many a book that I may not have if not for those voices… but I do like to find them on my own too and get excited when I can promote a book that I have not seen on other blogs. 🙂

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:51 pm

      Sheila: Lol 🙂 You’re so logical — it’s good to have a balance between reading things that are new and things that we know about. I have read a lot of unexpected books thanks to bloggers, and I really appreciate that.

  • Aths January 16, 2011, 4:56 pm

    I’ve actually forgotten to read via serendipity. Really. I went to a bookstore to look for that one intriguing book I hadn’t heard about. Every title I lifted, I put back, because the vision of my TBR was hurting my retina. The same thing happened at the library the other day. Sometimes, I would really like to erase my TBR and start afresh.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:52 pm

      Aths: I know the exact feeling! I haven’t bought a book in awhile because the TBR shelf is haunting me all the time. The thing is, I want to read all those books, I just seem to want to read every other book too.

  • Florinda January 16, 2011, 7:07 pm

    I think I miss it more as a matter of timing than of book discovery – that is, being impetuous about WHEN I read a book – although I do miss that sense of random discovery too. I was in a bookstore today, and I called up my LibraryThing wishlist on my phone to make sure I didn’t buy any books that weren’t already on it. That’s much more planned-out than I ever imagined being just a few years ago!

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:55 pm

      Florinda: You’ve summed up another great thing. Like Teresa commented, the ability to just pick up a book and read it as soon as I you get home. And that is really planned out — I haven’t gotten that organized with my TBR list yet.

  • Memory January 16, 2011, 7:20 pm

    I’m trying to inject a little serendipity into my life this year. Back in July of 2010, I bought a bargain book I’d never heard of before. I chose it solely because I’d enjoyed some of the author’s short fiction. And it was awesome. It made me want to explore some other unsung and/or forgotten books (or at least, books I’ve never heard of), so I’m making a real effort to borrow more books of which I was previously unaware. I want to approach at least one book a month with no expectations.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 8:58 pm

      Memory: That’s a great plan! I was thinking about trying to do something like that, but then it might sound more like a plan and then I would resent it and the cycle goes on and on… 🙂

  • softdrink January 16, 2011, 8:25 pm

    Lately, as I’ve been reading other blogger’s reviews, I’ve been listening more to that inner voice screaming Do Not Add This To Your List!!!!! Even though that other inner voice wants to add it to the list. Because I have shelves and shelves of books as a result of That List, which makes it hard to choose a random book for my next read.

    In other words, yes.

  • Jen - Devourer of Books January 16, 2011, 10:42 pm

    I would say that mostly I don’t miss it, because I think most of those serendipitous reads (particularly all the ones I picked up on a whim at Half Price Books) were akin to crap. Not all were bad enough to DNF, but I think overall I’m reading a much better quality of book now. And actually, I think the reason I didn’t DNF a lot of those books is because I was a less discerning reader before blogging.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 9:00 pm

      Jen: I wish I’d become more discerning about not finishing books, that’s one of my goals too, but I’m not great at it. But I do agree — the quality of books I read now it’s a lot better than it used to be.

  • Eva January 17, 2011, 1:41 am

    I still read serendipitously, so I can’t say I miss it! But it’s changed a bit…I tend to randomly come across a book online (not at a blog…either at a publisher’s website or Amazon or something) and pop over to my library’s website to put a hold request on it. I’d say at least half of my reading consists of books I’ve never seen mentioned on blogs. That mix works for me.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 9:02 pm

      Eva: I always see really different kinds of books on your blog, which I really enjoy, so I’m glad you’ve found a system for that 🙂

  • Steph January 17, 2011, 11:15 am

    Because we have this AMAZING used bookstore here in Nashville where books are frequently only $1.50, I do still wander about and just pick up books at random, but I must say that blogging has changed this for me to some extent because I find I am so much better informed about what is out there in the world. Clearly I’m not appraised of every single book that’s been published, but I find I recognize a lot more titles because I’ve read about them on a blog, so it is a lot more rare for me to stumble across something that feels completely new.

    I don’t go to my public library all that much because I have so many books at home that need to be read, but when I do, I do tend to enjoy just browsing and picking a few things out at random. That’s how I discovered Yukio Mishima, which I’m eternally grateful for! But of course, for every gem, serendipity can also lead us to a few duds too! 😉

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 9:05 pm

      Steph: I am almost powerless to resist a book for less than $5, so I would be ridiculous in that store! I feel the same way — not an expert, but definitely more informed about options. I haven’t gotten a random book from the library in quite awhile, but now I really want to.

  • Vasilly January 17, 2011, 9:01 pm

    I don’t miss serendipitous reading really because that’s how I often find the books I read. I place tons of books on hold to read but I also browse. I’ve learn to keep my sanity by not feeling guilty if I return a book unread. It helps to not accept many review copies though I still do it often. Another way to bring more of the unknown into my life is to read from my tbr shelves. I know the books on my shelves are probably great but I haven’t read most of them.

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 9:06 pm

      Vasilly: I should probably not accept as many review copies as I do — I feel like they’re more pressure than other books on the TBR shelf. I could read more serendipitously from my own shelves, if I wanted to as well 🙂

  • Erin January 18, 2011, 3:38 pm

    I intentionally made reading goals for 2011 that would turn me back toward the books I own, all of which I bought for a reason. I hate the feeling of being pulled in any direction in my reading and prefer to sort of drift. It may seem that making goals would be the antithesis of drifting, but…I suppose I like guided drifting, where the guiding is done by me instead of any external force. As more wonderful books get published and show up on blogs and such, it’s hard to resist their pull, but I’m happier in my reading if I do!

    • Kim January 18, 2011, 9:08 pm

      Erin: I totally understand guided drifting — that’s what I did for the end of 2010 and I liked it a lot. I liked not knowing what book I would read, but having a limited number of choices to make because I had specific goals about what I wanted to be reading.

  • Jeane January 19, 2011, 6:18 am

    Looking for them at the library first is my usual policy (I often write down titles while browsing in bookshops or thrift stores!) but I just can’t resist when they’re so so cheap (under a dollar).

    • Kim January 20, 2011, 5:06 pm

      Jeane: That’s a good idea, I never write down book titles while I’m out and about. It makes me want a smartphone with an app for just scanning barcodes or something to think about for later. I’m sure they have one of those, I just don’t have a smartphone.

  • Bex January 19, 2011, 12:54 pm

    I’m so new to the whole book blogging thing,and I’m already loving it so much,but I do totally miss going into the library and just browsing. Even in the few weeks I’ve been blogging and reading other people’s reviews regularly, and signing up for challenges (mustn’t forget challenges -I’m obsessed!) I find that i’m going around with a kind of permenant list in my head….

    • Kim January 20, 2011, 5:08 pm

      Bex: I use to do challenges, but they didn’t work for me. I still love thinking about book lists for them though, that’s a lot of fun! I have a giant, long, often forgotten list in my head and on various pieces of paper.

  • Care January 20, 2011, 11:34 am

    I’ve been thinking about this post for days (and can’t recall if I’ve commented on it… I know I had one and then decided not to submit (but that’s because it was full of typos))
    OK, I think you might just have to change or recognize a different flow to the river called serendipity. For example, I seem to be captured by a blogging phenomena when I do see a review of an author or a book and RUN OUT TO GET and immediately start reading without really knowing anything. I just picked up a ILL of a short story collection because I saw somewhere that Trevor Williams is a MUST READ AMAZING author and I don’t know him. SO I checked the library, asked for everything and this book is the first that came in. I then added to my goodreads and see that this collection has a 3.71 avg rating which is GOOD. So far, I’m enjoying. And yet. I keep saying I should read Beloved next and it’s now (still) 4th in line of what I need to read!!!!
    So. “book blogging serendipity”

    • Kim January 20, 2011, 5:17 pm

      Care: That is an excellent point. Serendipity has changed, from being a physical thing — seeing random books on a shelf or in a bin — to finding random reads via Twitter or blogs or other online spaces. So the location is different, but the spirit of it is similar. I can buy that, even if I miss the physical serendipity too 🙂