“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.