Erudition as a service?
February 26, 2014 8:30 AM   Subscribe

I've started writing more (blog posts), and several times this has happened: I use the Mac's search function to look up a word in the dictionary, for inspiration, and instead I notice a PDF search result from my folder full of (sadly illegal) PDF books, and end up on a totally wonderful track. Is there a more comprehensive, perhaps legal, way to do this?

I was writing about meat-eating and looked up "steak," for which Spotlight found Barthes's Mythologies, which I had forgotten about, and is a perfect source. Another time I looked up "irony" and found an excellent essay in the Cambridge Companion to Joyce — I would never have thought to look there, but it gave me the basis for an essay that could be interesting.

Is there a trick that essay writers use to find this stuff, or should I just educate myself and have a photographic memory?
posted by mbrock to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Google Books maybe?
posted by Beti at 10:31 AM on February 26, 2014

Best answer: DevonThink does exactly this for you. Stephen Berlin Johnson talked about it in his book "Where Good Ideas Come From" and how he finds it very useful in his writing career. It helps make connections, takes you down interesting paths, keeps track of stuff you have forgotten.
You need a Mac though but I think that software justifies the Mac purchase.
posted by PickeringPete at 11:49 AM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is called serendipity or accidental information encountering in the information science literature. You might want to look into "serendipity systems." This 2011 academic book chapter (PDF, scroll to page 5) has a nice overview on how browsing, serendipity, and information encountering have been discussed in the literature, and also offers some interesting ideas for serendipity systems. Here is a more straightforward blog post about the topic.

Basically, building a serendipity system is hard work, because different people want serendipitous information at different times and different people may conceive of a particular item as serendipitous or not at any given point. We can only recognize serendipity either right as it occurs or directly afterwards ("Boy, that was lucky, I'm so glad I found that! How fortuitous!" we might think directly following a serendipitous information encounter) so it is really, really hard to plan for. If we encountered serendipitous information when doing a normal Google search right now, we would all probably think Google was broken.

So the short answer is: yes, this is a thing; no, we don't understand it well; no, there isn't really a great serendipity system right now, but people are working on it. For the time being, using a service like StumbleUpon might be a good way to bake in something very close to serendipity to your seeking.
posted by k8lin at 12:03 PM on February 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Further to my post, checkout Johnson's own comments on his tools.
posted by PickeringPete at 2:13 PM on February 26, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks! The post about DevonThink is great if nothing else just for showing the "behind the scenes" of interesting writing.
posted by mbrock at 1:24 AM on February 27, 2014

Best answer: K8lin brings up serendipity.
Johnson discusses serendipity in "Where Good Ideas Come From". He mentions commonplace books, kept by the educated, hundreds of years ago, as a device to foster serendipity.
You would get a lot out of reading the book.
posted by PickeringPete at 10:56 AM on February 27, 2014

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