The Magic of Serendipitous Reading

My heart sank when I saw the recent news that Britannica was discontinuing the print version of its encyclopedias.  I understand the reasons behind the decision. I do.  But I also feel like we’re losing something in saying goodbye to those clunky old volumes.

When I was a kid  (Warning: I am about to expose my true nerdiness here) one of the greatest days of my childhood was the day I got to move our family’s 1966 World Book Encyclopedias into my bedroom.  The youngest of four kids, I’d had access to them on the den bookshelves since before I could remember, but there was something amazing about having all that knowledge living in my bedroom, as if it might soak into me while I slept.

I was – and still am – interested in so many things.  It’s one of the reasons I write such a wide variety of books.  I was a frequent encyclopedia reader as a kid.  I remember sitting cross-legged on the maroon carpet in front of the bookshelves, full of this weird excitement over what I might find, depending on which volume I opened. I loved all the entries about each state – how they had maps and photographs and tidbits about the state flower and state tree… the information seemed to go on forever, and that was just one entry. Just one out of a million things you might get to learn about. Just because you happened to open to that page.

We don’t do that so much any more… open to any old page.  We’re more about the targeted searching, which, if you’re good at it, doesn’t result in too many random articles about gorillas showing up in your face.  (Confession: I assigned myself a report on gorillas one summer because it felt weird to be obsessively researching them without some kind of project due. I announced to everyone in my family that I had a “huge research paper” due in two weeks. I was nine. It was July. To their credit, they all just nodded and wished me good luck.)

We gain many, many hours of time with our slicker, faster, nothing-left-to-chance research tools.  But we lose something, too – that moment of surprise when you think you’re turning to the page that will have the population of Ghana, but whoops!  Gorillas!  And it turns out you need to know about gorillas. You do. So you stop and read and turn pages, and pretty soon a whole hour has gone by and you’ve started taking notes and wondering if the library has some books about them and about chimpanzees, too, while you’re at it.

Whenever I go to the public library these days, I end up touching almost everything on the “New Books” shelf, especially books that wouldn’t normally be on my look-it-up-and-sign-it-out list.  And I try to sign out something that surprises me. It’s a tiny slice of the serendipity that used to rule my reading life.

Make no mistake… I am a fan of technology. I love the internet and appreciate how much easier it makes my life as an author. But a part of me longs for those glossy encyclopedia pages where you never knew what might show up along the way.

Kate Messner is a former middle school English teacher and the award-winning author of books like OVER AND UNDER THE
SNOW, THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z., EYE OF THE STORM, the MARTY MCGUIRE chapter book series, and a forthcoming July 2012 mystery, CAPTURE THE FLAG.  Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @katemessner, visit her Pinterest boards ( and learn more at her website:


Fill out the form below before Friday, June 1, 2012, for a chance to win an ARC of Kate’s upcoming book Capture the Flag!


Mr. Schu interviews Kate Messner today on his blog.