My readers have by now undoubtedly noticed that I have a thing about anniversaries.
Today is no exception, and marks several important such anniversaries, including the fact that my mother, were she still alive, would have turned 100 today.
Also, today is the fourth anniversary of the re-appearance, in print, of the English version of From Day to Day, following a 67-year hiatus. Perhaps equally important, this week represents the ten-year anniversary of my chance decision, in late April 2010, to purchase a newly published memoir called A Lucky Child, written by Thomas Buergenthal.
As I’ve pointed out to the audiences I have addressed, once you have, like me, amassed almost 5,000 books at home, the impetus to purchase yet another book comes quite easily. And so I had little hesitation in purchasing A Lucky Child even though I knew almost nothing of the book’s contents or its author—no reviews, no advertising, no recommendations—beyond what I could see on its cover. And yet A Lucky Child and From Day to Day, taken together, have changed the entire course of my life over these past 10 years—and hopefully for many more to come. The people I’ve met, the stories I’ve heard, the history I’ve learned, have all changed me indelibly and, I feel, for the better.
I recently came across a quote, attributable to Eleanor Roosevelt, when explaining how her husband’s polio affected him. “Anyone who has gone through great suffering,” she said, “is bound to have a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.”
Now, I make no claim to any such suffering. In fact, I’ve led an incredibly privileged life. But I feel that one can vicariously experience something of the suffering of others. And the experiences of Tom Buergenthal and Odd Nansen—whose stories I’ve read, and re-read, and absorbed—have engendered, I hope, “a greater sympathy and understanding of the problems of mankind.” I certainly cannot imagine a better insight into such problems than the combined experiences of these two special people provide.
Even if this is all true, it still begs an important question. Why did I choose to purchase, and read, Tom’s memoir in 2010, which in turn induced me—via a single footnote on page 177—to search out Odd Nansen’s diary?
Perhaps the best explanation I can come up with is one I found in a book review written a few years ago. The reviewer observed: “The life of an artifact or work of literature is subject to happenstance. How it travels and settles, takes root and effloresces, depends on so many various and unpredictable factors—on wars and the weather, on one reader’s serendipitous encounter or a rare individual’s advocacy. . . .” (emphasis added)
So, while I still scratch my head in wonder, I accept that I was fortunate to have had not one, but two, serendipitous encounters with such inspiring works, and the opportunity to advocate for them.
And that, as Robert Frost might say, has made all the difference.