Five or six summers ago, I was browsing in a shabbily genteel second-hand bookstore in a university town somewhere in the middle of the United States. The shop had a substantial stock of fiction, a generous and eclectic supply of non-fiction and the sort of haphazard shelving policy which actively demands exploration. I cannot now remember which section I was in when I discovered Reginald Reynolds’s extraordinary Beards: An Omnium Gatherum (1949). I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in fiction, but beyond that it could have been anywhere. The British Library shelves the book under ‘hairstyles’; the Library of Congress under ‘fashion’; Cambridge University Library under ‘European History’. The seller’s pencilling on the fly-leaf simply reads ‘History (?)’, which is probably where it was. But the uncertainty speaks volumes.
It was the cover that first drew my attention – the title on the paperback edition sprouts wildly across the chin of a figure who looks rather like Karl Marx – but it was the preface that ensured I bought the book. As part of his rambling discussion of the book’s genesis, Reynolds turns to the subject of serendipity, and the discovery of unexpected delights while browsing:
Now any good library is to a Serendipitist what a fly-paper is to a fly; and the most dangerous of all such fly-papers to a fly of small learning, such as myself, is the Reading Room of the British Museum. You ask for some old pamphlet or broadsheet, and it is certain to arrive in a bound volume with some twenty others or more, that are all the more entertaining because they have nothing in common with your studies. Or again, you are reading a life of Pomponius Atticus, who does not interest you, when you find that he died of tenesmos, which lays a hold of your curiosity. A considerate footnote explains that this affliction is a Violent Motion without the Power of going to Stool; and a new word with a sinister
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