Serendipity is one of my favorite words for two reasons. First, it’s not a word you often hear people say and has a unique sound. Say serendipity ten times fast! Second, the word denotes a happy or fortuitous encounter. By fortuitous, I don’t mean that things happen by luck or chance. God providentially oversees every event in our lives and so from his vantage point nothing is serendipitous. But from our limited vantage point, Providence can and does frequently send serendipitous events our way on a regular basis. One of my favorite serendipities occurs when I’m in the library.
When I’m doing research or simply looking for a book, I will go to the “card catalog” and obtain the book’s call number. This process is very precise—getting the book’s call number is an archer’s arrow that strikes the target dead center. I type in the author’s name and title and the computer provides me with the book’s precise location. This process is, of course, speedy, accurate, and enables me to retrieve the book I want. But part of my research process goes beyond the targeted retrieval of the one specific book I want. I always enjoy perusing the shelves surrounding the one book I want. My eyes roll over the numerous titles and I’ll even pick up a few books and thumb through their pages. I regularly go to get the one book I’m trying to retrieve and frequently walk out with other books because I serendipitously encountered other relevant books. There have been times when I end up finding very useful books that were not originally part of my retrieval process.
The serendipitous book encounter has largely been lost in our digital age. When you type your book and author title on the library computer, you’ll get your specific result. Yes, books with other titles might appear, but they’re not easily accessible so you can peruse their pages. Yes, when you buy a book from Amazon their website will show you related titles, books that others have viewed when looking at your selected volume, or ads for books from publishers that might be related to your own selection. This digital experience can be useful at times but I find it artificial in comparison with my serendipitous book encounters in a physical library.
All of this is to say, while the digital age has brought many benefits and efficiencies, it has come with a cost. Remember that with every benefit there is usually a trade-off. Do what you can to stay connected to our flesh-and-blood world. Don’t be afraid to go to a physical library and explore a topic of interest. Go to the stacks and find your book but let your eyes scan the other titles that stand watch next to your book. Just maybe you’ll have your own serendipitous encounter and find other interesting books that provide you with great joy.