Sunday, August 26, 2012

On Serendipitous Reading

Right now it is a Saturday and I'm babysitting the library for a yearbook camp.  I'm being paid by the camp and not the library, so I'm not doing library work.  Instead -- loads of patrolling and making sure our art collection isn't harmed by over-excited teens (seriously we have millions of dollars worth of art in here and that's no hyperbole) and the patrolling is punctuated by bits of reading, book lusting, and -- of course -- blogging catch-up.

Being in the library, clicking through beautiful book covers online, reading, and finally seeing the shelves -- you wouldn't believe how much library work is computer time and not shelf time -- has led to an afternoon of musing about serendipitous reading. 

It all started -- unbeknownst to me -- with reading Uncle Silas earlier this summer.  That Victorian-gothy novel centers around a girl, Maud, her father's death, and her misfortune of becoming evil Uncle Silas's ward.  The works and teachings of the Christian mystic and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg figures predominately in the plot.  I didn't realize this at first, but through textual clues I was able to infer that Swedenborg was weird and part of Maud's issue is that her father had some strange ideas and friends from being a believer in this peculiar offshoot of Christianity and Science and Phantasm.  Interesting.

Next I picked up Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death.  Lo and behold, Henry James Sr. (father to William James and author Henry James Jr.) was a believer the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and -- guess what? -- he was a bit batty too.  The book offers a brief explanation of Swedenborg; he was a scientist who essentially left science based on a belief in the otherworldly.  The explanation prefaces the constant struggle between science and spiritualism that Blum so effectively traces.  It also explains why it wasn't far-fetched for William James to be open to the possibility of science and spiritualism finding common ground.  This brief explanation of Swedenborgism also cleared up some mysteries in Uncle Silas.  At one part in the novel, Maud and her aunt are discussing evil Uncle Silas and the wind howls and they feel as if the elements were expressing Uncle Silas's fury at being discussed... in fact, they almost feel watched by the not present Uncle.  In Ghost Hunters, Blum explains that Swedenborg believed that letting go of one's earthly ego allows one to become closer to nature and you can -- to some extent -- see or control things through natural elements.  It also explains the odd diet of  cakes that Maud's father dined on and the strange trances of Uncle Silas; Swedenborg lived on sweets and advocated trances for spiritual transcendence.

While I was reading Blum's book, I decided I needed a fictional companion to my nonfiction spiritualism reading.  I randomly picked up a small anthology of ghost stories -- Famous Ghost Stories, published by Modern Library -- and began to read.  I read one horrifying story entitled "The Man Who Went Too Far" by E F Benson.  Chilling.  Well looky there... Blum's book mentions that E F Benson and some of this relatives were involved with the small community of scientist seeking to research spiritualism.

Serendipity indeed.

I wonder if it is because I was in the mood for something hinting at autumn in its ghostiness and it really wasn't so much serendipity, but on the other hand I could have picked countless other books with "spirits" and not had Mr. Swedenborg popping in or maybe he's influenced all of my previous ghost-reading and I just never realized it until now.  Or maybe, somewhere, some powerful Swedenborg believer is using the power of books to infiltrate my brain.  Something interesting for me to chew on.  Or become paranoid about.


Susan in TX said...

Serendipitous indeed. Have you read The Brontes Went to Woolworths? I read that on the heels of The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West and both had some of that "spiritism" stuff in them. It seemed to be quite the fad for a while. I found this post quite interesting -- actually having somebody's name to link it to.
Happy reading to you - I wouldn't be too paranoid. ;)
BTW, Happy early fall! I'm with you 100% in being ready for some cooler temperatures and fall activities.

Aarti said...

I LOVE book serendipity! It's so fun when you are reading books around the same time that seem to link to each other and make the whole experience richer. I was reading 1493 by Charles C. Mann, and he mentions a famine in China, and I was reading a TOTALLY unrelated Chinese fairy tale that was set during a famine and made a link there :-)