The Dying Art of Serendipitous Reading

I recently stumbled into a second-hand bookshop in London. I hadn't been in one for a while. Walking through the aisles, running my fingers over spines, smelling the musty scent of old books and rummaging through boxes of reduced paperbacks, I was struck by an intense sense of happiness.

This is what reading is all about, I thought, as I chatted with the owner, got his recommendations and discussed a mutual appreciation for Flann O'Brien. Leaving with a bag full of old books with dusty, torn covers, I remembered just why I fell in love with books in the first place.

In Paris earlier this year, I spent hours meandering through disorganized stalls where books were mostly 20 cents each, picking up whatever looked interesting, smiled at antiquated titles ('How To Deal With The Chinese' was one gem) and left with a backpack full of books I had never heard of. It was peaceful. Although, as a minimalist, I don't like the idea of shopping as an intrinsically enjoyable activity, there is something different about buying books.

As a teenager, I volunteered at a local thrift shop and came home every week with a pile of books. Sometimes I brought them just for the look - old books about flower arranging, minerals, crochet, cake icing. The meticulous photographic detail, the palpable sense of the author's passion for their particular craft that has fallen out of fashion, the craziness of someone spending 10 hours decorating a cake; it was all fascinating.

As a child, I adored going to my grandparents and pulling out a leather suitcase of books from a shop they once owned. I would sit all day reading them, meandering between authors and topics.

Part of the joy of reading is being lost in the age of Amazon. I am no exception. I buy most of my books online these days.

But I can't help missing, craving, longing for the old sense of serendipitous reading. We are getting lost amongst the fog of Kindles, book summaries, audiobooks, and the like, forgetting what reading is all about.

It's not about grabbing a few nuggets of information and cramming them in our brains or writing up a summary that will get lots of clicks on Medium. It's an experience, it's something sensory and infinitely pleasurable- the rich sense of delving into another world that I first fell for as a child. I didn't read in the way I do now. I worked my way through bookshelves. I borrowed from family. I read whatever fell into my hands. Many of my happiest childhood memories are based on serendipitous reading with no agenda or structure. As I couldn't often buy my own books, I read without discrimination - I read the Bible, the dictionary, the encyclopedia, and a lot of books that were wildly inappropriate for a six-year-old. 

Serendipitous reading is about discovery. It's about exploring and getting in touch with a childlike wonder at how diverse the world is, at how much there is to learn and understand. And it's beautiful.

I often get asked what the outcome of my reading is - how do I use the information? How do I remember it all? How does it benefit me? The answer is that, at least half the time, I don't, I don't, and I don't know. And why should reading be about tangible benefits? The enjoyment in itself is the reward.

Everyone wants shortcuts these days, and books have become another form of that. They become a shortcut to credibility for those who hire a ghostwriter and chuck out a vague memoir to get speaking engagements or consulting work. They are marketed as shortcuts to learning some secret to success, health, happiness. Yet that's one use, but that's not it. My reading has made me who I am - it hasn't taught me how to market, hack the stock market, control people through NLP. It just is.

So I still try to bring serendipity into my reading. I always turn to bibliographies and look for at least one thread to follow, another book to expand on the topic. I stumble across an author and branch out into the rest of their back catalog (as with Pico Iyer and Flann O'Brien and Matt Haig.) I follow breadcrumb trails. And I've been trying to spend more time in second-hand bookstores where the joy of discovery is as much part of the experience as the reading itself. Many of my favorite books were found in this way. I found Martin Eden in the Shakespeare Bookshop in Paris, opposite Notre Dame. I found Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes through the bibliography of Mastery. A friend lent me The Third Policeman and it quickly became my favorite fiction book.  I found On the Silence of Animals on my grandfather's bookshelf. Readers email me recommendations and I've discovered wonderful books in that way. There is something oddly intimate about someone recommending a book - the sense that something in it reminded them of you. 

There are millions and millions of books out there, many of them capable of speaking to each of us in a unique way. It's silly to assume anyone can condense them down into lists of 100 books to read before you die, or 30 books all entrepreneurs need to read, or the 12 greatest classics. It’s about discovering who we are through reading, learning everything and nothing.

Like many other activities - working, spending time with people, walking, learning - the pleasure is in the doing, not the pursuit of an objective. A mindful appreciation of the moment without any agenda, the intoxicating experience of being alive. It is the alternative to the information overload we all struggle with these days. Instead of being swamped by information, we can embrace curiosity and learn about ourselves through the books that speak to us.