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Serendipity Happens

November 29, 2010

Serendipity happens. It happened to me recently when I was looking for a Spinoza text for someone and happened upon a Cynthia Ozick essay on T.S. Eliot as a moralist.

These kinds of things still happen in libraries, along with applying for jobs online, checking out films on DVD, and waiting (but not too long) for the latest blockbuster.

I like T.S. Eliot’s poetry, so I took the book of essays home. This led to W.G. Sebald’s “On the natural history of destruction,” an irresistible title and a fascinating book about the destruction of Germany in WWII and its effects on post-war German psychology and literature.

Sebald is one of L’s favorite writers, so I lost the book to her and picked up instead his novel “Austerlitz,” a beautiful, affecting work with related themes.

I’m intrigued to know about the timing of the final text of the novel, but I haven’t determined it yet. In a section on the destruction of large buildings and fortifications, Sebald says this:

“… for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them.”

The novel went on sale in the U.S. in October 2001.

Sebald uses photographs in interesting ways, even in his fiction, and I was enjoying this aspect of his work and its similarity to one of my favorite writers, Alain de Botton, when sure enough, I discovered a new book by de Botton.

Coincidence? Of course, but delightful, too. To my chagrin, I only discovered de Botton’s new book by seeing it listed on a library request form. I would not be the first to read our copy.

The book is titled “A week at the airport.” Somehow, they managed a quote for the cover from The Spectator:

“Simultaneously poignant and terribly funny … De Botton’s most imaginative work yet.”

The first two are mostly true; the last is not. The quote would better apply to any of his other works, but “A week at the airport” contains a little of what he brought distinctively to each of his other investigations:

The art of travel,” “Status anxiety,” “The architecture of happiness,” “The pleasures and sorrows of work.” There’s even a little of his self-help books for the well-read: “How Proust can change your life” and “The consolations of philosophy.”

It’s refreshing to read authors for whom the United States is not the center of the map. It’s not that Great Britain and Europe are alien cultures, but if you ever read The Economist, Science News, or The Financial Times, available at your library, you’ll see the difference immediately.

I was pleased to read the word “dialled,” since this is my preferred spelling, although one “l” is now the norm here. Then I was affronted by “skilful” and looked it up. Yup, a chiefly British variant. Oh, wel.

De Botton quickly quotes Basho, a favorite haiku poet, to set up the poetics of restaurant menu descriptions. Indeed, the entire short book was familiar and comfortable, being what I’d expect from the author.

Which is not to say it was predictable. De Botton was invited in 2009 to spend a week at Heathrow’s new terminal as a “writer-in-residence.”

De Botton reflected while considering the offer:

“… technological changes seemed to be drawing a curtain on a long and blessed interlude in which writers had been able to survive by selling their works to a wider public, threatening a renewed condition of anxious dependence on the largesse of individual sponsors.”

So, he took the job. I’m glad he did.


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One Comment
  1. Vicky permalink

    Dear Jeff:

    What coincidence! T.S. Eliot and Basho are also my favorit poets who poetized my school days while being a youth.

    Since you mentioned haiku, I would like to share three haiku of mine with you, and hope they will season library’s boring days of yours and your colleague’s.


    Symbolizing PEACE
    Mother nature’s dearest mascot
    I am


    Through long l-o–n—g tunnel
    Coming to the snow country
    Of dancing SPIRIT


    Outing in a sunny
    Winter day
    Lo! plum everywhere


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