Summer reading and the beauty of serendipity

Oh, the magic of finding a great book through the sheer power of chance! Is the summer the best time for that to happen?  

Monitor book blogger Danny Heitman doesn't often read mystery novels. But this summer he decided to try Alan Bradley’s latest Flavia de Luce novel, “Speaking From Among the Bones.”

Although we celebrate summer as a season of freedom, it’s also the time of year when readers get the most direction about which books to pick up for vacation reading.

Well-meaning arbiters of literary taste – including, of course, the folks at “Chapter & Verse” – offer lots of well-meaning suggestions and reading lists to help connect book lovers with just the right title.

Nothing wrong with any of that, of course. The next best thing to reading a book, after all, is discussing it and – when it’s a good one – recommending a page-turner to others.

But today I’d like to offer a few words in praise of serendipity in summer reading – the magic of finding a great book not because someone pointed you toward it, but through the sheer power of chance.

All of this came to mind recently when I bumped into a book by Robert James Waller and startled myself by liking it. Waller is best known as the author of “The Bridges of Madison County,” a wildly popular novel about a pair of lovers in a star-crossed romance. Hats off to Waller for penning such a whopping bestseller, but I never opened the covers of “Madison County” for myself.

The premise of his novel always struck me as firmly in the genre of chick-lit, so I made a point of steering clear. And thanks to Waller’s signature novel, I’d mentally filed him as a woman’s writer, assured that I could skip all of his books without regret.

But the other day, while visiting my local library, I spotted the spine of Waller’s “Old Songs In A New Café” from the corner of my eye and decided to pick it up. That’s how I learned of Waller’s previous life as a newspaper essayist before he became a publishing sensation.

“Old Songs In A New Café” assembles about two dozen of his vintage columns, mostly from “The Des Moines Register,” and they’re a pleasure from start to finish, bringing Waller’s poetic sensibility to bear on everything from the death of a treasured pet to the departure of a daughter for college.

The happy accident that brought Waller’s work to my attention made me think of the many other times when helpful quirks of fate landed the perfect book in my lap. As a high schooler killing time at a neighborhood rummage sale, I leaned on a table and found my hand resting on a copy of H.L. Mencken’s “Minority Report,” discounted for a quarter. I’d never heard of Mencken, the gadfly journalist who had his heyday in the 1920s, but through this castoff title, I became a big fan, eventually filling two bookshelves with his work. The joy that Mencken took in the English language encouraged me to pursue writing as a profession.

During a college internship in Washington, D.C., I was leaving a bookstore at the Smithsonian when a shock of green grabbed my attention. It was the cover of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” which I bought on a whim, not expecting very much in return. Thoreau’s thoughts on simplicity and the power of local landscape stay with me still. I sometimes wonder how things might have turned out if that book jacket hadn’t been so striking.

Can we encourage these kinds of lucky literary meetings? The nature of luck, after all, is that you can’t really plan it.

But there are things that readers can do to become more open to the playful spin of the reading roulette wheel.

The time-honored art of browsing in a bookstore or library is a good way to indulge random acts of discovery. It’s nice to remind ourselves that we readers often don’t know what we’ll like until we try it.

This summer, I’m also nudging myself out of my usual reading habits. Although I can count on one hand the mystery novels I’ve read, I recently decided, just for kicks, to try Alan Bradley’s latest Flavia de Luce novel, “Speaking From Among the Bones.” Who knows? Maybe Bradley’s prose could please me as much as Mencken’s, Thoreau’s, or Waller’s.  

We all read for the promise of surprise. But sometimes, as readers, we have to put out the welcome mat for chance.

Summer, perhaps more than any other season, is the time to do just that.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.