Concerning Life as It Is Supposed to Be

Of Serendipitous Plans and Obscure Napkins

My wife and I were having lunch with a young woman a few months ago when she reported having purchased some books from the local “friends of the library” sale. Among the titles she listed for us, one caused her to stumble because it seemed so odd to her, almost embarrassing. She is fascinated with Rome and so seeing a book titled Rome, 1960, she grabbed it, having no idea what was in it.

I knew what was in it. Cassius Clay (aka Muhammed Ali) was in it. Wilma Rudoph was in it. A barefoot Ethiopian shocking the world was in it, as well as Americans tempting Russians to defect. Racism, sacrifice, triumph, and disappointment were in it. Two years before I had asked a friend who teaches sports writing at Rollins College in Orlando for an example of really good sports writing. This book by David Maraniss was his answer, a fascinating story of the 1960 summer Olympics, “The Olympics,” the subtitle tells us, “That Changed the World.” She had snagged a gem.

Choosing a book can have that kind of serendipitous air about it just like taking unplanned walks in the woods will sometimes bring us to places more surprising than we would find on a systematic tour. And yet sometimes without a plan, we just never get to see that Grand Canyon we’ve heard so much about.

My reading is a combination of the planned and the serendipitous. I outlined my plan with a friend over lunch once. It looks like this:

Translation available upon request. Please allow six weeks for delivery.

I’m clearly in need of therapy.

It struck me long ago that without a plan in my movie watching, then what I watch is dictated by Hollywood marketing or Netflix algorithms and I miss the gems which might otherwise enrich me. The same logic applies to reading.Enjoy the bestsellers and and blockbusters. But set aside some time to find out what all the fuss is surrounding books (and movies) that you have heard about and never tasted.

Plan to read Anna Karenina even though it’s been a long time since it’s been a best seller. Or maybe it’s time to read To Kill a Mockingbird to see what all the fuss was/is about. And Crime and Punishment really isn’t that long. Give it a shot. Don’t shy away from having a plan, even if that plan is simply to read one classic each year.

Part of my plan is to read ONE Patrick O’brian Aubrey/Maturin novel each year. The logic in this, besides their being so good and a wonderful treat, is that there are over twenty and so I’ll have to live to be at least 80 to finish. Friends are telling me to step up the pace and read one after the other. I think they want me to die young.

But don’t be ruled by your plan. Occasionally, just take a walk in the woods and see what you can find.

And walk with friends. Reading is never a solitary endeavor. Some of the best books I’ve read (like Rome, 1960) have come from the recommendations of others.

Ultimately, reading is one area of our lives where we are permitted to follow our hearts. And that’s not a bad thing.

You are finally out of school


Too Many Books!


The (Book) Lives of the (Not So) Rich and (Marginally) Famous


  1. Adrianna Espino

    Anna, Mockingbird, and C&P I’ve read – each more than once. I still wish I could have sat in on your class when you taught Crime and Punishment; alas, I probably would have been looked at funny by your teen students. I think you’ve read The Elegance of the Hedgehog; I love that the concierge has named her cat Leo, and her Japanese friend understands and has named his pets similarly. Just yesterday I gave that book to a church friend, much younger than I; she wanted me to leave in the sticky notes I’d used to mark important/favorite passages. I hope she enjoys it a lot. My niece loved it, her mom and dad hated it and stopped after a few pages. “There’s no accounting for taste.”

    • Hmmm. Why do you use sticky notes and not write directly on the page? That’s curious!

      • Adrianna Espino

        Because then I really couldn’t remove the markings before passing to a friend. I suppose I could use pencil, but all kinds of lovely gel inks are available in a variety of colors and I can’t resist….

        • I really enjoy reading the notes others leave in books. Our bookclub recently finished “Persepolis” (I think first recommending by Kathryn B. at ThinkTank years ago!). . . And I loved that the used copy I purchased had a young students notes all over it.

  2. Here’s a recommendation. “The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction,” by Alan Jacobs. The author deals with similar territory as this post arguing for whim and serendipidity over plan in reading choices. I have his approach freeing. It worth the read. But take note if you a fan of Adler and Van Dorn you will have sum assumptions challenged. Thanks for the good article above. Tracy

    • Great recommendation of Jacobs. You are the second to commend it. I hope to reference it shortly. And yes, I’m a fan of Adler et. al. – they offer a great deal of insight. However, they do disparage reading ‘for mere fun’.

  3. I’ve enjoyed you sharing your ongoing thoughts on books. And I’m curious about the translation of your book choosing algorithm.

    I think I shared earlier one of the sad/challenging realizations I had this year — I won’t live long enough to read all the books that I really want to read.

    When I shared this with someone earlier this week, they took it as me being too ambitious/feeling pressured to read so much. Not at all. Just, that there are so many to enjoy and experience and my capacity as a finite human means that I won’t be able to enjoy them all. And so it is sad and hard to decide what gets my attention. (Sometimes that means whatever freebie I’ve downloaded on the kindle. . . so I’m not always even choosing well!)

    • I get the ‘age’ issue. I’m in the middle of a book right now that I should dump because 300+ pages in it just has not captured my interest. There are too many others out there, and only a limited amount of time before me!

      So, my napkin. This was sketched for a college student wanting to think about some of his reading choices. #1/Q stands for questions. What questions am I confronting or thinking about or obsessing over that I want answered? Or what things have captured my interest? I should read books that are answering my questions. #2/G stands for growth. What can I read that will feed my heart, my Christian walk, my life with God and in his church? I think the B there stands for biblical studies and the D for doctrinal, but I would not limit the category that narrowly. And #3/E gives room for the main focus of these posts – fun. But here is the thing, even reading for ‘Entertainment’ is feeding us, or can, or in a sense, ought to. The best books expose me to other worlds, take me into the heads of other people, or give me a sense of emotions new to me. Or, as I might put it, ‘everything is sermon preparation.’

      Thanks for asking.

  4. Saw this quote, thought of this post specifically and more broadly you and your discussions of books. . .

    “Young men, especially in America, write to me and ask me to recommend “a course of reading.” Distrust a course of reading! People who really care for books read all of them. There is no other course.”
    ― Andrew Lang, Adventures Among Books

    • Thanks. I do understand that. And yet, with billions in print, it IS sometimes helpful to have a wilderness guide to take you to some of the best vistas until one learns to wander around by oneself, don’t you think?

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén