Library serendipity

The more information we have available, the narrower our focus. We can’t read all the news that’s out there, so we focus on just the topics that interest us.

The daily newspaper used to be a feast of serendipity. There were the stories we needed to read, or had to read (as informed citizens), and then there were the quirky, odd, interesting stories that we’d stumble upon and read with a smile or a grimace or the exclamation, “Now I’ve seen everything!”—which of course we hadn’t.

But the more information, the more need for filters, the less chance to bump into things or ideas that might change our lives.

Every time I go to my local library (the Belmont branch of the Multnomah County Library), it seems the shelves of books on hold have expanded another few meters, further crowding out the small number of books in the nonfiction collection. And many patrons come to the library solely to pick up their books, check them out, and leave.

And, by doing that, they miss the stumble, the bump, the tripping over something new and interesting.

The hold shelves often include books for me and my husband, and sometimes I wish it didn’t cost $2 a book to just have them sent to us by mail. But then, I’d miss the chance to poke around in the library’s collection, pulling the occasional book off the shelf (love the sewing and quilting section!) or finding a best-seller with a huge hold list on the “lucky day” shelf, or—my favorite—picking a book off the return cart, a books that the librarians haven’t put back on the shelf yet.

That’s how I found My Korean Deli, a book so funny it had me laughing aloud at 4 a.m. (I picked it up off the nightstand in one of my many nocturnal wakings and had to force myself to put it down a couple of hours later so I could at least get 6 hours’ sleep).

My Korean Deli is about Ben Ryder Howe, a WASP (his family still lives in Boston 400 years after the Mayflower) who marries the daughter of Korean immigrant. She’s a high-powered corporate lawyer, he’s the senior editor at the Paris Review, and they are living in the basement of her mother’s house in Staten Island. They give all that up (well, not the basement room, where the sole window looks out on the ankles of passers-by) because the wife is convinced she owes her mother (“the Mike Tyson of Korean grandmothers”) for all her sacrifice to her children, and to do that she will buy her a business, specifically, a deli.

Howe works for the legendary George Plimpton, whom he describes as “seventy-five years old, as tall as an NBA small forward, as pale as New England fog, and usually covered in gashes and scrapes, as if he’s just emerged from a rosebush. … George lives in a tall man’s goofy world and is constantly crashing into things, tripping over them, or causing them to fall on him simply by being in their presence …(Once) he took the opportunity to show the office an MRI of his testicles, which had been injured at a writer’s conference in a late-night collision with a golden retriever.”

Just try writing fiction as oddball as that.

The whole book (so far as I’ve read) is full of colorful language, surprises, and non sequiters. When he wakes Plimpton up unexpectedly: “George makes a noise like a vacuum cleaner that just inhaled a gerbil. Then his eyes pop open like two window shades with their drawstrings plucked.”

OK, as an editor, I’m also charmed that the staff at the Paris Review “care enough to get into shouting matches over the serial comma.” Folks, after a career spent taking out commas that came before “and,” I’ve embraced serial commas, because they’re elegant, they restrain ambiguity, and the space they take up can easily be reclaimed by tossing out the occasional overused adjective.

But back to pulling books off the shelf: that’s how I found Patchwork, Please! which includes the pattern for the baby quilt I’m making. And on the “lucky day” shelf I found Vegan Before Six (VB6), by Mark Bittman. I already know all that stuff about the vegan diet/lifestyle, being a lapsed vegan (another day, another story), but oh, the recipes! They are why I’m going to buy the book.

Through library serendipity, I discovered image transfer; how to make designs by punching rags through burlap; The Winter’s Tale, by Mark Halprin, a fine novel just made into a movie; Gingerbread, by Rachel Cohn, perhaps my favorite YA novel—and a few hundred other delights.

The Multnomah County Library’s outreach services could probably be persuaded to deliver books to me free because I’m disabled. But then I’d miss out on the serendipity that makes each trip to the library an expedition, an exploration, a treasure hunt that so often has me bringing home gold.


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