# 44: Reading as Serendipity — Resolution
Story behind the Passage
Usually, I try to use easy language that everybody can understand — including myself. The title today diverges from this golden rule. Even more disturbing is the fact that I myself did not know about the concept of “serendipity” until about a week ago. Since then, however, so many things have fallen into place that I simply have to write about it. And my writing today includes a new resolution, maybe an early New Year’s Resolution that will accompany my life from now on — possibly and hopefully longer than 365 days. Let me explain…
Not even a week ago, I had a conversation with someone who has become a very important and inspiring conversation partner of mine already, although we met quite recently. Right at the beginning of our appointment last week, he said: “Well, I feel, it was serendipity that we me met via xyz, our common acquaintance.” The way he said this sounded like it was something fun that he was talking about. But I am an honest soul and I had no clue what he was talking about, so I asked: “Seren… what? What do you mean? I have read this term maybe once in my life but I have never heard anybody use it in a conversation with me. Could you explain, please?”
This was the beginning of a new journey that I am on now. Actually, it is not a new journey at all, I am talking crap here. The incident just gave my journey a name that I had not known about before. And the beautiful thing is: the name is so much more accurate than anything that I have come up with in the past. I will not talk about all these details today because I am quite certain that the topic will keep occupying me and my writing for a while — probably for a very long while. Still, I need so share some excitement today and reveal how my finding of serendipity relates to what is so important to me: reading. The problem is that I often put reading behind other priorities. This is going to change.
The passage above I only read today when starting my research on serendipity. It is from Robert K. Merton and Elinor Barber’s book The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. I think, the first time I learned about Merton was in a Communication Studies lecture in university. He was a U.S. sociologist and I think, the only context in which he appeared in our lectures was structural functionalism. No worries, I am not going into this now. What is for sure is that I never ever heard about serendipity at the time. And that is great because now that I have — I am right on track, starting a new discovery journey, sniffing for new sources like a dog and sucking up this information like a vacuum cleaner.
“they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of…” Before I really get into this, let me just define what sagacity is: quick perception (Etymonline). So, serendipity involves unintentional learning and drawing conclusions quickly without actually being aware of the method behind it. The passage is a quotation in Merton’s book which goes back to a letter of Horace Walpole, an English Earl in the 18th century (Livingheritage). Walpole was supposedly the first one to coin the term serendipity.
The thing that struck me so much is the story behind the actual story of the Three Princes. Walpole was a letter writer! This habit of writing letters has become extremely out of fashion nowadays but it has not died. As I have written about elsewhere (“Narrative Politics Today”), letters still play an important role in politics to win the support of key decision makers and other political actors, even opponents. In my own life, I do treat e-mails as electronic letters.
Sometimes people get pissed of if you write “letters” that are too long.
They do not read them.
Sometimes they even write back saying that they do not read them.
I continue writing.
It is not my job to teach them fast reading and self management.
So, what I am saying is that the word was actually coined in a letter and this is also how researchers were able to trace it. Even more fascinating is the information that Walpole himself had learned about the concept from a tale he had heard: The Three Princes of Serendite. Again, as I mentioned above, I am just starting to get into the original tale and its many versions and modifications in different languages and cultures. But regarding my own entanglement with the concept of serendipity, there is one remarkable thing: A story shaped the term. But not any story, a fairy tale from the East.
When I did volunteering in Ghana for a couple of months in 2006, I lived in a tiny village and worked there as an elementary school teacher. The books were scarce and whenever I went to the nearest city, I tried to find English books that I could use to tutor some students who were able to actually read and understand simple stories in English. Of course, fairy tales were great for this. So, I bought several slim books and I can still remember the cover of one of them. I will check, maybe I still have it in my shelf. Even if not: What I found so fascinating when I read these fables was that they were familiar. Even though the animals were different than the ones I had known from childhood and the morale might have been slightly different, it was clear that these stories had traveled across time and across cultures. In other words, they were human treasures that taught universal human lessons across the globe.
This surprise finding in and of itself might be called serendipity. I was not looking for anything in particular when I read the stories back then. I was simply trying to make sure that there were stories written in easy English, so my students would understand. But as you can see from my narration here, I would not have remembered this minor activity of buying a book and identifying passages for teaching had I not had this incredible and unexpected insight about the power of fables and their true capacity to transcend borders. Theoretically, of course, I had known about this. But I was not into fable research at any point. In fact, I had disliked most fairy tales when I was a child. And now, this moment of recognizing the patterns of familiar stories was so strong.
Obviously, my life has always been connected to stories, particularly stories found in books. And this is what I want to get at now: When I learned about the word serendipity — a word that in and of itself came to me by accident via my new friend— I immediately knew that this was how my most important learnings in life occurred. They were never planned. That does not mean I am never planned anything. To the contrary, I was an obsessive planner during most phases of my life. But the real insights, the heureka moments, always happened when I was actually looking for something else.
Well, you might say now: “That is life. What is so special about this? Is this really what serendipity means?” Yes and no. The really spicy ingredient is still missing: The three princes were not able to solve the puzzle just like this without any special expertise. They combined knowledge, training, and experience from many different fields. This means: for serendipity to happen, you need to be prepared. And this takes me to the reading part now.
For me, reading is the number one source of serendipity. And this is why I need to do it with more discipline again. Books are like mirrors, right? You only see in them what is inside you. This is also why 1,000 people can read the same book and each and every one of them will have particular findings that none of the others had. This does not mean that there will not be any joint findings. Still, each reader brings a different knowledge base and experience with him/her. This also happens with individual reading. I know there are people who read books again and again at different stages of their life. I never do this. But I definitely know that the findings I gain from reading very much depend on my personal status quo, on my stage of intellectual preparation.
All this leads me to my resolution: I know I said this before when I started blogging 44 days ago but I did not assign a definite target. I said that writing about passages from books would make me read more. In general, this might be true. But so far, there have only been very few new readings in my posts. Most of the stories came from books that I read a while ago. That is totally fine because the passage I choose always relates to the topic that occupies my mind on that particular day. Still, my brain is not kept in balance if I give all priority to writing and none to reading more.
Consequently, from today onwards, my goal is to read one book per week (not a new goal, by the way). And reading means: I complete reading the book within a week. This means, on November 15, 2021, I will have read at least 52 new books. That sounds quite alright to me. One post per week will deal with this new book in my personal brain library. I do not know if it will always be a Sunday when I write about this but it could be. The most important thing is not the day but the regularity. When I was a student, I easily read several books per week (mostly non-fiction). This was a blessing that set the cornerstone for everything I am doing today. And I need to get back to this habit because if I do not, I will lose my ability for serendipity in the long run.
If there is anything that enriches my life — it is this gift of making unexpected discoveries in stories; discoveries that help others and myself grow.
1) When did you last experience a moment of serendipity? What where the circumstances?
2) Which fable do you remember from childhood days that really shaped your life?
3) Do you want to join the “one book per week” resolution? If yes, commit yourself right now.