Reader Question: Best book you ever found by accident

January 7, 2010

Most of my book purchases are relatively thought out. I see something lauded in the New York Times Book Review. I know of it as a classic. It’s this month’s book club read. Or it came highly recommended. Rarely do I grab books blindly, in a vacuum.

But it has happened. And, in fact, led to the discovery of two books that are among my very favorites.

Book 1: Cyberpunk Brilliance

I was in my late teens, slovenly, ill-directed. Wallowing in college, asset-poor but relatively book-rich. I had not yet grown fully into my literary self, but read like the dickens. I was wandering around a suburban Border’s Books listlessly; I think it was the holiday season. Young though I was, I had a highly refined disdain for Yuletide cheer. I don’t know what possessed me, but I swiped a book at utter random off of some fiction-like shelf.

By my lucky stars, it turned out to be Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. It’s like the book was written just for me. I had just recently come to the epiphany that I was probably going to be–and wanted to be–a geek for a living. Stephenson’s style actually informed my entire professional attitude (for better or worse). In a flash I realized that the Internet could be hilarious. This was in a time of news groups and Archie searches, way before LOLcats and Rickrolling. It was life altering. Stephenson is one of the funniest writers I have ever read.

Book 2: Western Reverence

The second random grab was in Powell’s City of Books. A bit older now, not much wiser. Starting to fancy myself as a young lady of letters (this was untrue; I was staggeringly ignorant, as I still remain today). This time I scored Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. I was so bowled over that I wrote a long paean of a book review on my then-web-site, which was a blog, but the term didn’t exist yet. This in a time way way long before I ever made a habit of writing book notes or reviews.

Stegner’s work is in the same love-of-landscape-and-history vein as certain Steinbeck novels. It had that multi-generational epic feel that I am still a sucker for. And such a story. Perhaps if I am moved to complete a project I’ve long thought of doing–re-formatting old database dumps of “posts” on this paleo-site of mine into WordPress import-able posts–I’ll be able to share the record of my excitement for this random book. As a bonus, there was an incredible comment from an intriguing commenter. But I’ll save that, perhaps for later.

How about you: Luck with random books?

Have you ever discovered something super great by grabbing blindly off of shelves? Do you do this often? What’s the worst outcome you’ve seen (I grabbed a “staff recommended” paperback at an airport Powell’s branch for a trip to Vegas this year–oops, turned out to be bodice-ripping drek)? Do tell!

An aside: I realize I mention Steinbeck, Stephenson and Stegner in this post. How alliterative!


  1. doug says:

    This April I randomly picked Redmond O'Hanlon's CONGO JOURNAL out because I needed a book for Vanuatu and it was one of the books in the Penguin Classic range, which was the most affordable thing at the airport and I had decided I should start reading travel narratives. Absolutely loved it. Had slightly more awareness of Paul Theroux when I picked up DARK STAR SAFARI later that trip, but it was still pretty arbitrary; didn't get to it until last month and enjoyed it equally if not more. Two very different looks at the African landscape from two very different writers; O'Hanlon is eternally present tense and experiential, and scientifically focused, while Theroux is endlessly casting back to his previous experiences, presages the end at the beginning, and is a much more acerbic social critic. His thoughts on the aid culture are a must-read for anyone who feels guilty on a quasi-regular basis for not donating to support poor people in Africa. (I could go on, but I'm starting to exceed the lengths of comment decorum.)

  2. Was in the student bookstore on campus (which is tiny) looking for a notebook and browsing the sale section. I grabbed Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust because it was marked down to €2.95. Hadn't read Faulkner for years but when I started, I could just hear the southern accent smoothly telling the story. I adore this book – funny, a good mystery and beautiful, oh so beautiful. I would love to hear what others think of it. I wonder if it was just one of those right book for me at the right time kind of things. You rarely see it mentioned in discussions on his works.

    • lyzadanger says:

      Only you would pick up a Faulkner blindly. I'd run away in panic.

  3. nyquildotorg says:

    The Tao of Pooh.

  4. Jessica says:

    I found “The Great Santa Search” by Jeff Guinn on a clearance table at my local Walden Books. It has brought me on the most wonderful holiday journey the past few years as I read that book as well as the other books in the series. It was just what I was looking for and I didn’t even know I was looking. Funny how that works out. :) The series is told from the perspective of Santa. In fact it’s written as if it’s being told to Jeff Guinn from Santa. It’s a great mix of history, humor, and legend. I’d recommend it to anyone.

  5. Scott says:

    I picked up “Marley & Me” at the airport, since I had just finished the book I brought for the trip. I was finished by the time we touched down. This was before the movie came out, so I had never heard of it before walking into the newsstand.

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