The Jam Smear

Kottke and Steven Johnson have launched talk of serendipity, a topic that pops up now and then. I still remember reading an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago called “The End of Serendipity,” a piece that probably played some minor role in my ending up a book-browser and library weenie. Johnson’s recent post moved me to pick back up William Gass’s essay “A Defense of the Book,” originally published in Harper’s in 1999 and recently collected in A Temple of Texts. From the essay:

Words on a disc have visual qualities, to be sure, and these darkly limn their shape (I can see them appearing right now as I type), but they have no materiality, they are only shadows, and when the light shifts, they’ll be gone. Off the screen, they do not exist as words. They do not wait to be reseen, reread; they wait only to be remade, relit. I cannot carry them beneath a tree or onto a side porch; I cannot argue in their margins; I cannot enjoy the memory of my dismay when, perhaps after years, I return to my treasured copy of Treasure Island and find the jam I inadvertently smeared there still spotting a page precisely at the place where Billy Bones chases Black Dog out of the Admiral Benbow with a volley of oats, and where his cutlass misses its mark to notch the inn’s wide sign instead.

My copy, which I still possess, was of the cheapest. Published by M.A. Donahue & Co. of Chicago, it bears no date, and its coarse pages are jaundiced and brittle, yet they’ve outlived their manufacturer; they will outlive their reader – always comforting, although a bit sad. The pages, in fact, smell their age, their decrepitude, and the jam smear is like an ancient bruise; but as well as Marcel did by means of his madeleine, like a scar recalling its accident, I remember the pounding in my chest when the black spot was pressed into Billy Bones’s palm, and Blind Pew appeared on the road in a passage that I knew even then was a piece of exemplary prose. It was not only my book in my hands I had, as I sat on the porch steps with a slice of bread and jam; it was the road to the inn, Billy Bones in his bed, the mark on the sign, which – it didn’t surprise me – was still there after all those years.

A bit later – after asking readers not to picture him as someone “decr[ying] technological advance like some old codger whose energies are conserved for rocking” – Gass talks specifically of serendipity, of “the opportunity for discovery that open stacks make possible.”

When I wish to look up a word – golliwogg, which I’ve encountered spelled with two g’s – or when I wish to plenish my mind with some information, say, about the ill-fated Library of Alexandria, why don’t I simply hit the right keys on my machine, where both a dictionary and encyclopedia are imprisoned? Well, I might, if the spelling of golliwog were all I wished to know; if researches, however large or small, were not great pleasures in themselves, full of serendipity; for I have rarely paged through one of my dictionaries (a decent household will have a dozen) without my eye lighting, along the way, on words more beautiful than a found fall leaf, on definitions odder than any uncle, on grotesques like gonadotropin-releasing hormone or, barely, above it – what? – gombeen – which turns out to be Irish for usury. I wonder if Ezra Pound knew that.

Similarly, when I walk through the library stacks in search of a number I have copied from the card catalog (where I can find all the information I need about my book in a single glance), my eyes are not watching my feet, or aimlessly airing themselves; they are intently shelf-shopping, running along all those intriguing spines, all those lovely shapes and colors and sizes. That is how, one day, I stopped before a thick yellow-backed book which said its name in pale blue letters, The Sot-Weed Factor. Though it was published by Doubleday, so there was probably nothing of value in it, I still pulled the book from its place. What did the title mean? I read the first page, as is my habit. Page one and page ninety-nine are my test spots. Then I bore it home, neglecting to retrieve the book for which I had begun my search. Instead, for two days, in a trance of delight and admiration, I read Barth’s novel. Later, I repeated my initial search – for a book that turned out to have no immediate interest. But right beside it, as well as two shelves down and five volumes to the right … well, I discovered another gold mine. That is why I stroll through the encyclopedia, why I browse the shelves. In a library, we are in a mind made of minds – imagine – all man has managed to think, to contrive, to suppose, to scheme, to insinuate, to lie about, to dream … here … within reach of our hand.