Wednesday, September 09, 2015


serendipity in action

Do most people know that Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity?  I think it's common knowledge, but I want to mention two - to me - extraordinary examples of serendipity which have befallen my very own self within the last week.  They both involve books.  The first example, just one book.  The second, many.

Instance the first.  Late last week I was a few hours away from home, on my way to hear a well-known painter talk about her work and work habits.  I left early to take my time driving down, and to stop at an art supply store along the way.  After a prolonged visit to the art supply store, I really needed to find a bathroom (tmi?), so I stopped at a nearby bookshop, which I knew had a good bathroom.  Honestly, that was my only intention.  But.  Once inside, I couldn't help glancing around at the books.  Near the bathroom is a table of sale books - you know, publishers' remainders, at reduced prices.  I looked at a few art books.  Then, on a low shelf, the one nearest to the floor, I saw this:

That was truly all I could see of the cover, since it's a very tall book and the top half was cut off from view by the next shelf up.  I didn't even think before I reached down, just something about the manner of the illustration on the cover caught my attention and I had that tug of curiosity to see who the artist was, and what the book was.  Well.  The rest of the story:

I ask you.  Really.  What are the chances of this happening?  Me wandering into a bookshop and lighting upon this particular title, two minutes later? Horace Walpole's Cat by Christopher Frayling (Thames & Hudson 2009), with illustrations by Richard Bentley, William Blake, and (the cover artist I was curious about) Kathleen Hale.  The book opens with a brief chapter on Samuel Johnson's cat Hodge:

And continues with another short chapter about Walpole's dogs, particularly his beloved Patapan:

We then are treated to the complete text, with its variations and history, of Thomas Gray's famous Ode On the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes, written after the death of Walpole's cat Selima, who indeed drowned one sad day in 1747, while apparently reaching for certain things beyond her capabilities.  The first facsimile edition within is illustrated by Richard Bentley, from his edition of 1753:

William Blake also illustrated the Gray poem in 1797-98 and his illustrations are reproduced here in color:

As is the massive Chinese porcelain tub in which Walpole's goldfish lived, and his cat drowned.  The tub was sold to the Earl of Derby at the 1842 Strawberry Hill auction.  It is still at Knowsley, in the possession of the present Earl of Derby:

Also within are Kathleen Hale's previously unpublished watercolors (from 1944) of Gray's poem.  Her cover illustration is indicative of her great style - she was famous for a series of children's books about Orlando, the Marmalade Cat, and lived to a great age (her obituary in The Guardian is fascinating).

But I love this book not only for its images, since the text is wonderful, too - Christopher Frayling ties together a lot of loose strands, in a charming style.  Truly a pleasure to read and ponder.  I was dumbfounded - thunderstruck really - there in the bookshop, over the happenstance - the serendipity - that helped me stumble across this altogether lovely title. 

I was taking the above photos of this book just a few minutes ago - some are (appropriately?) a little fish-eyed since the book is quite large and I was a little too close to it.  Our cat Hodge (Christopher Frayling also named a cat Hodge, by the way) was sitting in the sun-patch next to me, and I couldn't resist taking his picture too:

He looks pleased with it.  But really, who knows.  The book cost ten dollars, by the way.  In other Horace Walpole-related news, I've been reading his Letters for months now, and am still at it.  I'm halfway in to Volume VIII and the going is slow, partly because I stop to take brief notes as I'm reading.  This is my system:   

As I read along I jot notes on a long index card, with the page number, approximate location on the page (top, middle, bottom) and the word or phrase I want to copy into my diary/commonplace book.  When I fill a card, both sides, or finish a volume or major section, or simply whenever I feel like it, I use the card to go back in the text and find all those quotes and words, and write them into my diary.  Then I start a new card.  The card also serves as a bookmark.  This system works for me and doesn't feel too disruptive as I read along (much less so than stopping every time I want to take longer notes).  Why I do this, I don't really know.  I realize it's compulsive, but I've read books this way for years and years, and I like making notes from my reading.  At the very least, my diaries show me exactly what I was reading when, and what I thought of it, since I'll often write opinions about the quotations I've just copied over.  Anyway.  The other night Ryan asked me what I was going to do when I finished reading this set (which is imminent).  And I had to think for a minute.  Since all I want to do is read more Horace Walpole.  I could do just that and take even more volumes of his Letters out of the local research library (an hour away), since they have the massive Yale set of his complete correspondence.  Or, I could abandon Walpole altogether and start in on the huge to-be-read piles in the book room, which I've been adding to all summer.

Speaking of which.  We finally come to the second example of serendipity I experienced recently.  Remember I said there were two?  Long story but will try to keep it short(ish).  Here goes.  Over the weekend, we took a drive. We live on the coast, and there are wonderful peninsulas nearby that offer even more coast, so we often take drives, usually with no plan other than a certain sandwich shop or take-out, at suppertime, near a beach perhaps.  It's a good plan-less kind of plan and has served us well on many a Sunday drive.  To wit, on a back road on one of these nearby peninsulas, this past Sunday afternoon, we drove by a table of stuff on the side of the road, with a sign on it saying "FREE" - and since my husband is never one to pass up a good look-see at a table of free stuff, we pulled over.  He walked back while I waited in the car, in a pleasant reverie involving the beautiful apple tree across the street, which was full of ripe apples.  (I can often resist the siren call of free stuff.  I already have a lot of stuff.)  Ryan put a few things in the backseat of the car, and called out a "Thank you!" to the woman coming out of her house.  He also said, as an afterthought almost, "Thanks for the books, we love books!" since it was indeed some books that he'd just put in our car, among other things.  She said, "There are more in the house, if you want to look!"  Well.  I awoke from my reverie, and we did.  We looked and looked, in her living room, library, and storage room.  When I first started looking, and realized she had some really nice books, I said, "What do you want for these books, what should we pay you?  I can't just take all these!!"  She said, "If you want to talk about money, you'll have to leave.  The books are free.  FREE."  Her tone brooked no discussion.  However, after filling a box and several bags, and telling her I used to have a bookshop and that I still sell books on the side (full disclosure), I had to ask her the same question again, and again she said, "We are moving, you are doing me a huge favor by taking all these books, they are FREE, take as many as you want." Me, in response, "....." (while thinking Okay then, and thanking my lucky stars in general and this wonderful woman in particular, and getting down to the serious business at hand).

We spent about two hours with her and her books, I think, though it might have been less - it felt timeless.  We came away with four cartons and twelve grocery bags full of books, and I suppose I could have taken more, but I did look at everything twice (which I usually do at friends-of-the-library sales or thrift shops), so I do think I saw what there was to see.  Most of the books were really good solid secondhand books, in the fields of history, literature, art, and classics.  The kind I would have been happy to pay money for to stock the shelves of my bookshop, when I had a bookshop.  The kind I am now very happy to sort through, making my usual stacks as I go - sell, keep, give, read someday, read very soon.

Serendipity.  We happened to drive by, and stop.  Ryan happened to utter a truth: We love books.  She happened to ask us in.  We filled the car, then drove on - to the sandwich shop, and then the beach, to watch the sunset and marvel at the twists and turns of fortune.

IKR - to find the Walpole book like that, after reading his letters since April, well, it felt more than a little freaky! I was standing there in the bookshop, holding the book, thinking "Wait, what? WHAT??"
Serendip, indeed! Great stories.
Thanks, Dan, My run of unlooked-for luck continues. Yesterday I walked into another bookshop (keeps happening) and on a whim bought a paperback book about a painter who visits and works on a Greek Island, summer after summer, and buys a house there. I read the first half of the book last night. And came across this, on page 143: "I looked up 'serendipity' the other day in 'Roget's Thesaurus.' One of the synonyms was 'happy chance '..."

Even when I'm not reading Walpole, it feels like I'm still reading Walpole.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?