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.