Last week, in an article on bibliotherapy, I recommended a book entitled The Novel Cure by Susan Elderkin, which is based on the premise that books can be healing. She writes:
When read at the right moment in your life, a novel can – quite literally – change it, and The Novel Cure is a reminder of that power.
This knowledge is inspiring and comforting – but when applied to the sheer volume of books out there to be read, it’s possible to feel somewhat overwhelmed. As Susan states:
If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year – and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die – you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.
The number of books on the market is expanding at a bewildering rate, thanks in part to the digital revolution and the rise of independent publishing, but also – happily – because reading continues to be so popular and books so beloved. So how do you go about selecting the books to which you will devote your time and energy?
Some of the books I read are recommended to me, and there’s a security to that kind of reading. You know (hopefully) that the book should appeal to you; that you will enjoy reading it. Other books are by authors I’ve read before – either re-reading a book I’ve enjoyed in the past or reading a new novel by a writer I respect. Again, a fairly safe choice of reading material.
But safe isn’t always as interesting; safe doesn’t bring quite the exhilaration and delight of a discovery made yourself. Remember Virginia Woolf’s words, ‘I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure’? The books are the treasure to be found, and it’s the treasure-hunting that’s the fun challenge.
Finding a book that speaks to you feels like finding treasure. There’s a magic to it – a spark of energy when you realise the book in your hand is one you’re going to read. Perhaps the cover caught your eye, or perhaps the title caught your imagination. Maybe the back-cover copy hooked your interest, or you flicked through the pages and read the odd passage that made you curious and keen to read more.
What makes the feeling magical is that this is a serendipitous book discovery. There’s the sense that you did not find the book so much as it found you. In the New Yorker Ceridwen Dovey writes of how she is delighted ‘not only in the books themselves but in the randomly meaningful nature of how I came upon them’.
I have found some of my favourite books in this way, while browsing in second-hand book stores, at the public library in England and Ireland, at the brocante markets in France, in boxes of books left behind by an emigrating family – even once, memorably, on a park bench; a novel left by a Book Fairy, perhaps (ibelieveinbookfairies.com). These books really do feel like treasures to me.
What serendipitous book discoveries have you made? Which books on your shelf do you treasure? I would love to hear your thoughts.