In praise of the serendipitous

In praise of the serendipitous

If like me you still read books (those pages amassed between hard or soft covers that you can touch, smell and occasionally go to bed with) … and if, again, like me, you are a hopelessly promiscuous reader of such texts, you will no doubt find yourself reading several of them at any one time: books half read, books almost but not quite finished, books about to be read.

Occasionally, of course, all such undisciplined, serendipitous and compulsive readers have to acknowledge the impossibility of the task: the impossibility, that is, of drawing all the readings-not-yet-finished into a harmonious discourse. So, somewhat guiltily and with a tinge of regret – a sense of a job not-yet-finished – we leave behind the books that remain half read, almost read, just begun, and move on to pastures new. Of course, we tell ourselves that one day we’ll return and pick up where we left off… sometimes we do (and sometimes we don’t).

But on other occasions a spark occurs between two or more texts. They begin, as it were, to talk with one another and invite the reader into the dialogue. Anyway, that’s how it felt when I found myself reading a novel entitled Happiness by the novelist Aminatta Forna (Lannan Visiting Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University, USA, and Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, UK), while at the same time reading a very different kind of book entitled Why Universities Should Seek Happiness and Contentment by the educational philosopher Paul Gibbs (Professor of Education and Research Director of the Centre for Education Research and Scholarship at Middlesex University, UK). Two very different books, but with overlapping themes such that the one illuminates the other.

I wrote my short piece partly because I wanted to share my excitement at having discovered the connections and partly in the hope that other readers would be drawn to one, other or both of the two books under discussion. Whether I’m writing on Hannah Arendt and the politics of friendship or – more recently – Rosa Luxemburg and the struggle for democratic renewal, one of my main motivations is to draw the reader back to the original texts. The prime task of the interpreter is, in my view, to render the object of interpretation not only more accessible but also more desirable.

But on reflection – and with specific reference to the short piece I wrote for Teaching in Higher Education – I realise that I also wanted to highlight the importance in all intellectual endeavour of what Arendt called, in her last great unfinished work, ‘train[ing] your imagination to go visiting’. Underlying my piece is the nagging worry that the university is no longer – if it ever was – a place that acknowledges and celebrates the serendipitous: the surprising and unexpected encounters and interconnectivities that fall outside the prescribed readings, the pre-specified learning objectives, and the pre-determined criteria of excellence.

Long live the serendipitous!

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