Saturday, June 04, 2011

Bookish Fate and Bibliographical Providence

In Letter XXII of my Letters to a Young Calvinist, I playfully but seriously testify to a conviction regarding bibliographical providence: that some books that I just "happen" to bump into, or have passed on to me, were divine appointments of a sort. There are volumes that have fallen into my lap, and captured my attention, which one couldn't have plotted from a previous bibliographical trajectory. And looking back on their role in my formation, I can't help but see them as instances of illumination along a path--a journey in which I was being led rather than charting my own course.

So it was with some interest that I read Michael Chabon's introduction to a new edition of Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, recently excerpted in the New York Review of Books. While Chabon can't avail himself of a notion of providence, and is pressed into the language of gifts without a giver, one can nonetheless hear an analogous conviction:

The book appeared in my life as mysteriously as the titular tollbooth itself, brought to our house one night as a gift for me by some old friend of my father’s whom I had never met before, and never saw again. Maybe all wondrous books appear in our lives the way Milo’s tollbooth appears, an inexplicable gift, cast up by some curious chance that comes to feel, after we have finished and fallen in love with the book, like the workings of a secret purpose. Of all the enchantments of beloved books the most mysterious—the most phantasmal—is the way they always seem to come our way precisely when we need them.