Library Angels

library angels, or how the right book just appears

“Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.”  ~Emma Bull

Sometimes the book you need just appears. You never imagined it exists and then suddenly bam, it’s right there in your hand.

Maybe that book sets you off on a new quest, or lightens your weighted heart, or snaps on a mental light switch. You’re never quite the same afterwards.

This happens to me pretty often.

Most commonly, the book I need drops from the shelf or persistently gets in my way when I’m looking for another book at the library. This occurred more frequently back in those golden-hued days when my favorite library was tightly packed with tall stacks of books.  It required some wandering and often some teetering on a wooden stool to find a particular book. That gave a book that needed to find me a chance to fling itself in my direction.

The right book for me also once appeared in a used book inside the wrong dust cover and another time was left on a dirty seat next to me in a muffler repair shop.

Such delightful happenstance isn’t confined to books. Utterly necessary articles, quotes, interviews, and poems appear as if by magic in my life as well. In The Roots of Coincidence, Arthur Koestler calls this literary synchronicity the work of “library angels.” 

British author Rebecca West told Koestler about her experience with a library angel back in 1972. She had been researching a specific episode of the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

I looked up the trials in the library and was horrified to find they are published in a form almost useless to the researcher. They are abstracts, and are cataloged under arbitrary headings. After hours of search I went along the line of shelves to an assistant librarian and said, “I can’t find it, there’s no clue, it may be in any of these volumes.” I put my hand on one volume and took it out and carelessly looked at it, and it was not only the right volume, but I had opened it at the right page.

Aleksandr  Solzhenitsyn writes about another such strange coincidence in The Gulag Archipelago. While he was incarcerated in Leningrad, a new prisoner was brought in. The man was a renown physicist who happened to be obsessed with working through a technical problem, but it required certain mathematical tables. There was no chance of getting those tables, since the only books permitted in the prison were works of Party propaganda distributed to the cells at random. One week a library worker came around and passed out the very book the physicist needed. The scientist memorized the necessary tables before the mistake was noticed and the book confiscated.

My library angel experiences aren’t as gobsmackingly surreal as these two examples by any means, but I’ll take all the positive coincidences I can even if I don’t know what mysterious force to credit. Library angels? A benevolent God who speaks to the bookish among us on our own wavelength? The universal consciousness at work? (They’re all names for Mystery well beyond our understanding anyway…) It doesn’t matter, when a book shows up unexpectedly I have learned to pay attention.

I’d love to hear your stories of coincidence, word-related or otherwise.

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15 thoughts on “Library Angels

  1. Very interesting post, Laura. This is the second post I’ve read recently where I’ve thought, “Oh, I’ve experienced that, but I didn’t even think of giving it a name.” I’ll have to pay more attention when this “library angel” phenomenon happens, so I can take better note of the experience. I experience something similar to which I have taken notice. There will be some topic, some message that keeps getting repeated over and over, through articles I read, things people on TV shows I’m watching talk about, things that friends and family bring up. Sometimes it will be something archaic I read in a book, perhaps even something I’d never heard before and then suddenly I’m hearing it everywhere.
    The passage about Rebecca West reminds me of a book I read called “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking” by Malcolm Gladwell, where the mind is taking in millions of pieces of information all the time, but we’re not conscious of everything we’re observing, so we do things out of “instinct,” but it’s really based off of our adaptive unconscious.

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    • I know what you’re talking about Mandie. When we tune into a topic it’s like entering a spectrum of light where more and more of that topic is illuminated, and more ways that topic connects to other topics are suddenly obvious. I think the Library Angel thing is a subset of this phenomena.

      I know psychology explains that we’re simply more likely to notice something after our attention has been drawn to it — buy a yellow car and suddenly you see yellow cars all over the place —- until then just something our minds had been processing all along below our awareness. I acknowledge this is true. But I also like to think of our universe as having an impulse toward every greater complexity, definition, and beauty, Cosmologist Brian Swimme says it is the Divine coming to know Itself and describes it thusly: “You take hydrogen gas, and you leave it alone, and it turns into rosebushes, giraffes, and humans.”

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  2. I once found myself in Vermont telling the woman next to me at the table full of publishers that I wanted to read another Dan Brown book. That night I was sent out to sleep in a very old farm house miles from the dinner in a bed nook in the large cold living room. The owner of the house never did not appear, I crawled into bed and pulled the heavy curtain around the bed, started to settle in wondering how to spend the rest of the evening and saw on the corner shelf of the bed the very book I had wished for.

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  3. I used to live near a used book store that would call me in when I had no need or intention of going in to buy another book, and sometimes even put the books on empty shelves for me, where of course I didn’t see them until I had looked at all the books on every single shelf of the sections I enjoyed, and only when I was completely frustrated by having been “called in” for seemingly nothing, would my eyes fall to rest on the out of print book I’d been wanting for a while. It was such a great, little, magical book store that way.

    There used to be times I could open a book at exactly the right place, or put exactly a pound of coffee into the bag I was filling.

    Fun times… they (the fun, the experiences, and opportunities) have disappeared into the brain fogs somewhere… Thanks for bringing a few memories back.

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  4. The library has always been a special place for me. There is no greater truth than the phrase: Knowledge is power. My sister died on November 28, 1996, which is my daughter’s birthday, and that year, Thanksgiving Day. Around this time, and for several years after, I noticed that whenever I would look for a book, by subject, I would write the number down incorrectly. At first, I didn’t think much of this. The computer system has long since been replaced by Windows. It was just a digital card catalog. I didn’t really mind, because like you, I always found the book I really needed, I just didn’t know it yet. Finally, one day, I resolved that I would quadruple check the numbers that I wrote. So I did, and I headed up to the non-fiction floor, and headed to the correct aisle, and found it occupied by a man, about 5’5″ tall, reading a book, head down, dishwater blonde hair, long enough to obscure his face from my view. I followed proper library etiquette, and went around, hoping to enter the aisle from the other end. Here I encountered what I thought was his twin, but I felt this one was female. I nearly bumped into her, quietly apologized, and entered the adjacent aisle to wait out their departure. That is where I found a book about endometriosis. I later learned that this played a role in my sister’s death. I didn’t realize what had really happened to me that day, until later. It has never happened again, but I don’t spend near as much time in the library as I should.

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  5. I love library angels. I was recently at a used book store perusing and felt panic I wouldn’t find what I was looking for or miss it. I ended up crawling on the floor looking at book titles and helping the owner put books in different places… I left with some books and a reminder to trust myself, my not so sharp eyes and if I’m meant to find a certain book, I will.

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