Serendipity & Contingency

In the latest lecture to be posted online [], the Oxford Professor of Poetry tells us:

Because I don’t go online in any way, I think and work almost entirely by serendipity. Serendipity works by the rule that the book which is to change your life stands next on the shelf to the book that you had intended to take out from the library, and which as often as not (the book you had wanted I mean)  turns out to be a dud. You must envisage me, then, reading and writing from the centre of a small intense radiance of apprehension, a miniature vortex of intuition. [starting at 6:00]

There are several ironies here. The first is that the lecture is online, demonstrating one way in which Geoffrey Hill does “go online.” The other is that the example of serendipity he gives is oddly at odds with the premise. For one thing, in using a library he (like everyone else) almost certainly goes online in order to locate “the book you had wanted.” Even if the computer terminal sits in the library foyer or reading room, it is likely to be connected to its own digitized catalogue via global network of computers called the WWW.

But more fundamentally, the very existence of a system of ordering call numbers almost always foretells what kind of book, and very often what specific book, lies next to the one you are looking for. Serendipity (in this case) will not give you Homer if you are looking for Heaney, will not give you Henry James if you are looking for William James (though it may, quite accidentally, give you James Henry if you are looking for Henry James). The possible serendipitous outcomes are drastically limited by the ordering system, a system which says, “these are the books that we think are most like the one you are looking for, according to some set of criteria which we deem relevant for these purposes.” – “Deem: dee double ee em. Deem.

Because the shelf space is laid out physically according to an abstract indexing system (whatever this may be – there are several), there is always a notional title in the place next to the one you have identified. The only serendipity lies in whether that book has been written and, if so, whether it has been acquired by your library. What actual book lies next to yours, and how different it is in subject or approach (not to say essential value) from the one you had wanted, depend on how partially these criteria have been met.

Say, for instance, the book you had wanted was Hill, G.. Collected Critical Writings (OUP, 2008), and you trotted off to your nearest library, having found (by “going online”) LLC shelfmark PR6015.I4735 A6 2009. If your nearest library is a small college library attached to a network of larger libraries, as mine is, you may find next to your intended book The Miracle at St Bruno’s by Philippa Carr, and Dawn and the Darkest Hour: a study of Aldous Huxley. Either of these may take you in an unexpected direction, and (theoretically anyway) might even change your life. But if your library is a big research library, like the Library of Congress, you will find next to your intended book two more copies of the same book. On either side of those you will find two books by the same author.

Of course the Library of Congress, like the British Library and most of the Bodleian at Oxford, doesn’t let you inspect the physical space of the the shelf, employing fetchers to retrieve your book from the stacks. In cases such as these the only way to come across a title by serendipity is to use the online catalogue, if the software will let you browse shelfmarks (SOLO doesn’t, but this is a deficiency of the software, not of the data structure).

The title of this blog is “Poetry & Contingency,” but it might have been “Poetry & Serendipity,” if “serendipity” can be taken mainly the way Hill describes it here. “Contingency,” like “serendipity,” can imply something accidental or lucky:

3b. The befalling or occurrence of anything without preordination; chance; fortuitousness.
3d. The quality or condition of being subject to chance and change, or of being at the mercy of accidents
4b. A conjuncture of events occurring without design; a juncture. (OED2)

But “contingency” also can imply dependence on some previous state of affairs or controlling principle, or the controlling principle that will determine some future state of affairs:

1. Close connexion or affinity of nature; close relationship.
5b. A possible or uncertain event on which other things depend or are conditional; a condition that may be present or absent.
6. A thing or condition of things contingent or dependent upon an uncertain event. (OED2)

In the case of the serendipitous library find, what is depended upon is not the essential value of the book but its place in an arbitrary (I don’t mean random or capricious) indexing system. This is determined, and determining. What is fortuitous is that no one has written any of the possible books that come between your intended book and the one that sits next to it; or, if someone has, that your library hasn’t gotten around to buying them.

This kind of serendipity can absolutely arise out of the digital and digitized world, as anyone who has “browsed” the web well knows [an example of such a discovery is here]. There are differences between a shelfmark system and a Google search, but they aren’t differences of serendipity. Both impose a more or less arbitrary order on a mass of information in order to help us find what we think we are looking for. And both produce sometimes unintended, sometimes happy discoveries, helping us to find things we never knew we needed.

Two further questions:

1. Lovely, isn’t it, how “radius” becomes “radiance” in the quotation? Is this the serendipitous result of a speech error (the second syllable of “intense” having primed the speaker for the slip), or intended result of the wilful poet at work?

2. What does any of this have to do with Sri Lanka?


  • Katie wrote:

    Since you left Oxford, the Bodleian has opened the Gladstone Link, which affords readers access to a proportion of the Bodleian’s holdings, for the most part those judged in most frequent use. (Or deemed so.) But there, the shelfmark and thus adjacency is according to date of acquisition by the Bodleian: a kind of contingency that is almost always useless, and adds to the recent frustrations of the place.
    On 1.: yes. On 2.: also yes.

  • D-AW wrote:

    On Gladstone shelfmark: useless, but potentially giving more of an impression of serendipity? On 2: yes?

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