The Serendipity of Selecting Books, or How Do You Pick a Book to Read?

In the February 22 “By the Book” section of the New York Times Book Review Alice Hoffman gave this answer to the question: What book are you most eagerly anticipating this year? A novel I know nothing about that I happen to stumble upon, as I did once upon a time searching through my mother’s bookcase. That’s still the best reading experience: falling in love with a book I meet by accident.


I used to go along the library shelf and pick books by title, color, something else about the spine that caught my eye This method introduced me to authors I never would have found otherwise. I would read a piece of the flap or the first sentence or two to see if I potentially would like the book, but for the most part, those books were a surprise. I’ve never been one of those people who has to finish a book I start, so I wasn’t in danger of investing  time in something I didn’t like.

For a few years, I worked in the children’s department of our public library. As the head librarian valued my knowledge of YA books and respected my ideas, it was a great job. Until she resigned. The new head of the department was a nightmare and I soon left, too. I avoided the library and started buying books. Suddenly I was pickier. Now I would be wasting money if I didn’t finish a book.

Although I may have still done some shelf-selecting, I tended to read authors I knew I liked or tried books from reviews. The reviews proved less than satisfactory; I might have been okay with these selections if I was getting them from the library, but when I shelled out dollars and used space on my dwindling bookshelves, I became more critical and often never finished a volume.

For a number of years, I belonged to a book club which provided me with books and titles I never would have read without the suggestion of the group. Not all of these were great (The Celestine Prophecy) and some of them weren’t worth reading (Bridges of Madison County.) Overall, though, I was introduced to new titles and authors, until the group disbanded when more people wanted to discuss work and vacations than the content of the books.

During this past summer, I attended a writing retreat on Long Island. One of the instructors read a piece from a Colum McCann novel. It was beautiful. I wanted to read that book, not one of his recent ones, but I didn’t remember the title. Old Firehouse Books, my local independent bookstore, carried only TransAtlantic and Let the Great World Spin. Although my nemesis had finally been let go, and the library was a safe place again, I was out of the habit of going there.

One day in the fall we were at The Tattered Cover on Broadway in Denver. Truth be told, I prefer the LoDo location, but that day it was easier to access the main branch. I scanned the new titles but nothing looked like a sure thing, something I wanted to sink a large chunk of an afternoon’s salary into. As we were leaving, I remembered my desire to read Colum McCann. Like many bookstores, The Tattered Cover has added used books to its shelves, making its name more accurate. I found McCann on the shelf and pulled a book off, paid for it, and later that night started reading. It was lyrical, but it wasn’t what I expected. Many pages in, I turned back to the cover. Somehow I’d pulled The Mother of All Sorrows off the shelf, a book by Richard McCann, not Colum. Serendipity and a surprise book. Probably not something I would have picked to read on my own and an author I hadn’d heard of.

I’d made another serendipitous selection related to that trip to New York. Even though I’d brought a book with me to read on the plane, I like to browse airport bookstores. A friend had suggested In the Night Circus as a reading selection for my trip, but even though it was on the shelf, the pull of the unknown made me select another title, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, a German bestseller. I hadn’t read a book in translation in awhile, the title sounded somewhat intriguing, and the first sentence or two worked, so I bought that instead. I don’t believe I know anyone else who has read this story full of magical realism set in a another culture.

Cognate questions: How do you find books? Have your ever found a book by accident?

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  1. #1 by Caroline on February 27, 2014 - 7:04 am

    What a great story about picking the “wrong” McCann! Serendipity rules, as far as I’m concerned. Which is why I was so opposed at first to Amazon and other online book-buying sites. I felt they took away from the library and bricks-mortar bookstore experiences of stumbling, almost literally, upon a wonderful book. (And you know it was all the better for having discovered it without any planning or anticipation–the surprise of it was part of the delight.) Which is actually how I found The Rook, which you didn’t like, but others did and I loved, and Ready Player One, which I liked and others among us LOVED. Great post!

  2. #2 by c2london on February 27, 2014 - 8:18 am

    That would make a good post/story/tweet; how technology robs us of serendipity. I didn’t realize I was lacking my self selecting at first, but I did immediately mourn the loss of the card catalog as it, too, removes the surprise of finding something else about your subject, an interesting sounding book you, etc.

    Since this was mostly a personal interest type blog, I wasn’t going to tweet it, but I think I will now with that title.

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