Sunday, December 07, 2008

Making Connections

(Apologies to those of you who have been reading my ghost story serial on Sundays. I'm not home and don't have that laptop with me, so the next installment won't be forthcoming until next Sunday.)

I have a friend who is a member of a book discussion group that has decided to read books in pairs, so they're choosing things that they think might be good companion reads. I'm jealous, as I absolutely love this idea. However, I'm not about to form another book group. I'm already a member of two book discussion groups, and a third one that requires reading two books at a time (as well as all my 2009 challenges) just might do me in.

But don't you just love it when you "accidentally" read two books that are great companions to each other? One of my favorite examples of this was when I finished reading Virginia Woolf's Orlando (fabulous, fabulous book, BTW) right around the same time that the copy of Jeanette Winterson's The Powerbook (also a fabulous book), which I'd put on reserve at the library, became available. Both books explore androgyny and gender roles and include characters who swap those roles. I didn't know The Powerbook was going to have some very similar themes and scenes until I started reading it.

Well, it's happened to me again recently. Last month, the detective book discussion group decided to read Ian Rankin's The Falls, which I enjoyed immensely from beginning to end. At the same time, I had also decided to read Mary Roach's Stiff, which is a collection of essays about cadavers (which, yes, is at times, as gross as it sounds. It's also fascinating in that macabre way such things are, and she is as hilarious as I remember her being when I read her book Spook, about ghosts, a few years back). Woolf and Winterson kind of make sense as companion reads. These two books most certainly didn't. Although mysteries do tend to feature a cadaver or two, I definitely didn't pick up Mary Roach's book thinking, "Ahh, this book might give me some insight into any dead bodies found in The Falls."

Well, life is full of little surprises, isn't it? (Most especially, I'm discovering, how much life our dead bodies provide for other organisms -- at least for a while. I guess I always thought that once we die, all those things that have been sponging off us for so long die right along with us, but not so.) One of the notes you can now find in the margins of my copy of Stiff is, "If it [his book] hadn't been published first, at this point, I'd be wondering if Ian Rankin read this book when he wrote The Falls."

You see, there is much more to connect these two books than mere cadavers. Roach has a whole chapter on body snatching and human dissection. She discusses two 19th-century Scots William Burke and William Hare who discovered they could make a bit of a fortune by selling dead bodies to those who needed and wanted bodies to dissect. They practiced their trade in Edinburgh, initially selling a dead body of a man who had died, unassisted, in a room at Hare's flophouse. However, they soon decided to create their own corpses, if you will. For some reason, not explained by Roach, Hare was granted immunity when the two were caught and put on trial, but Burke was found guilty, and his punishment (in a good old-fashioned "eye-for-an-eye-tooth-for-a-tooth" court of law) was dissection. Burke's bones were made into a skeleton, and some wallets were made from his skin.

Lo and behold! Burke and Hare show up in Ian Rankin's book, unique wallet (although it's referred to as a pocketbook by Rankin) and all. This little event, that probably doesn't show up in too many history textbooks, becomes a piece of the puzzle John Rebus and his colleagues are trying to solve in The Falls. The caratid artery, which also makes an appearance in Rankin's book, has a bit role in Roach's as well (although, in Roach's, it's all about embalming and in Rankin's it's about how to kill someone). I'd never even heard of the caratid artery, and here it shows up in two separate books I've decided to read at the same time. I haven't finished reading Stiff yet, but I'm wondering what other little accidental connections I might find.

I've decided there ought to be a term for this phenomenon. I'm thinking maybe librendipity? Tell me what you think it ought to be called.

10 comments:

raych said...

I throw my full support behind 'librendipity.' This happens ALL THE TIME, and I feel like the universe is conspiring to give us a good laugh. Also good for a laugh? Mary Roach. Stiff was my first, and it slayed me.

Emily Barton said...

Raych, oh good. One vote for "librendipity," and glad to see someone else thinks it happens all the time. Also glad to see I'm not the only sort who reads Mary Roach and finds her hilarious.

litlove said...

I adore librendipity and could only come up with 'bibliopathy' myself which isn't as good. Comparative criticism was always my favourite at university because I love it when books talk to one another that way.

Dorothy W. said...

Librendipity sounds good to me! How great about the Roach book -- I do love it when that happens. My favorite experience of librendipity was reading a book by Elaine Scarry on beauty and reading Proust at the same time who illustrated her ideas perfectly.

Cam said...

I like librendipity, but I've always referred to 'library seredipity' when I stumble upon something on the library (or bookstore) shelf that I wasn't expecting, when looking for something else. Can you help me come up with another word for that?

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, well, with the Litlove seal of approval, I guess librendipity it is.

Dorr, and see? You're already making beautiful use of the word (pun intended).

Cam, hmmm...the only thing I can think of is bibliotechendipity. But that is, in the words of an editor, "awkward." I'll have to ponder it some more, or perhaps I've sparked something better in you with my "awkward" word?

stefanie said...

I love when "librendipity" happens and next time it does I have a word for it!

Emily Barton said...

Stef, good. Now how do we get it into Webster's?

Susan said...

We all post about it! Librendipity it is! You are a Goddess of words, Emily!! And I loved the Falls by Ian Rankin, one of my favorite mystery writers. *sigh* we have to meet some day, you and I!!!

Emily Barton said...

Susan, yes, it seems we much meet one day (not only are you a great commenter, but you look so friendly in your profile picture on your blog -- just the kind of person with whom I could sit around and chat for hours).