Walking through the stacks at the library can be overwhelming and even bewildering. There are so many choices! Where do you start?
Well, sometimes just walking through the stacks and looking at the right place with the right frame of mind you will find something you didn’t even think of looking for. For some people, serendipity might be finding the love of your life, but for me, it’s finding the book I didn’t even know I was looking for. Let me tell you about my serendipitous finds and how one book led me to a string of others and hours of happy research and learning.
In the back of my mind, I’ve been interested in exploring a subject, but never quite knew how to search for it. I had difficulty in expressing it; the best way I could really explain it was the history of ideas, although not the history of philosophy. I was looking for society’s reaction to ideas, but something more precise than just a general history of social revolutions. Lots of books on the history of ideas resembled Buzzfeed-like articles with titles like Ideas that Changed the World, or The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written – great overviews of the subject, but I was looking for something that focused on a few influential ideas and their mark on the world.
I had given up until one day I was browsing through the new books. I couldn’t believe my luck! There it was: Shape of the New: four big ideas and how they made the modern world by Scott L. Montgomery. I picked it up and was amazed that I had finally found the book I had forgotten to look for. It discusses ideas from the Enlightenment and how people have used and twisted them, all the while reminding us that we need to learn about our past before we can begin to understand our present.
A few days later, I found a similar book: Inventing the Individual: the origins of Western Liberalism by Larry Siedetop. The Western world takes for granted its liberalism and ideals of individualism and seems to forget that it took a variety of events over the span of over a thousand years before we got here. Mr. Siedetop carefully examines this history and argues that it began earlier than traditionally thought.
Both of these books got me thinking about other influential ideas that changed our society. Less than a month ago, Manitoba proclaimed January 28 the Centennial of Manitoba Women’s Right to Vote, even though not all women gained the right to vote in 1916. This made me look into the history of feminism since the suffrage was a leading driver to advancing the rights of women. The Feminist Promise: 1792 to the present by Christine Stansell gives a great outline of the key moments in the history of feminism and its current direction.
Had I not found that first book, I never would have discovered those amazing books, and my wondering would have continued. Wandering in the stacks can be one of the most efficient ways to find that something unexpected.