This week Kate McLoughlin writes in the Times Literary Supplement about what she calls “serendipitous sorties”, the way in which browsing was done before the Internet and books were discovered by strange chance in an inherited bookcase, or the fairly random selection in a library.
My own most curious serendipitous sortie occurred in the Brotherton Library in Leeds. To get from the place where I usually sat to the lavatory I had to go downstairs and walk through the stacks. Since it was a circular building, the corridor between stacks narrowed towards the centre. Every time I had to duck at the centre to avoid banging my head on a large volume stacked sideways. Once, in curiosity, I took it down and found it to be a 17th century translation of Traiano Boccalini’s Ragguagli di Parnaso, ‘News From Parnassus’. The spine was broken, so I took it upstairs to the librarian. A few weeks later a message arrived to say the book I had “requested” was repaired and ready, and so I felt a duty to borrow it. That gave me unexpected fuel for a seminar about Aristotle, and led to a later purchase of the original edition (Impresso in Cormopoli [ie. Venice] per Ambros Teler, MDCXV ) and a brief mention in the Acknowledgements of my book about Internet, Shift: The Infolding Internet, Hype, Hope and History (John Wiley, 2003).