Reading outside the feedback loop

July 20, 2008

Two facts: 1) Serendipity is the engine that powers the wonder of life and 2) when you read, life is often measured in periods demarcated by the dates before and the dates after the reading of a life-altering book.

A life-altering book does not necessarily need to be a good book. It does not necessarily need to be a classic. In fact, informal surveys have shown me that it rarely is. Instead, the book simply needs to have the right message in the right format and arrive in the reader’s hands at exactly the right time. Hence, serendipity.

The books I have read that have had a profound impact on my life — either emotionally, intellectually or spiritually — have never been chosen by me. They fell into my hands as random gifts or chance recommendations by friends, family members and even perfect strangers. Choosing your own books, either at the bookstore or at the library, even when the choosing is done in a purely whimsical manner, too often results in a closed feedback loop. You will always choose books on subjects that you know already appeal to you, written by authors with a style you know you will like. This echo-chamber intellectual silo is unavoidable without third-party support, and Amazon.com’s recommendation engine does not count as third-party support. It knows what you like and will just continue showing you books that fall within your core sphere of preference.

What is needed is a serendipity engine. An engine for the engine, if you will. There are relatively low-tech versions of this. Bookcrossing being one example. And a good one at that. The best solutions will, of course, be completely unpredictable, both in content and timing. A program that knows your personal zeitgeist and then, at entirely random intervals, hands you something entirely outside the realm of said zeitgeist. In this sense, a monthly book club recommendation does not work. The book should fall into your hands when you least expect it at a time when you probably don’t want to read it. But then you read it anyway.

The Razor’s Edge was like this. So was Ishmael, Fahrenheit 451, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. In hindsight, it is obvious that there is certainly a common thread among all these books. Finding that thread is left as an exercise to the reader.