What Do William Gladstone and Little Big Man Have in Common?

I don’t get it, these coincidences with no significance always happening to me.

Allow me to illustrate from today’s events.

Around noon, I hefted my copy of Roy Jenkins’s biography of William Gladstone from the shelf, with the vague intention of reading some portion of its 698 pages. As if this would not be enough to occupy the few moments I could spare, it occurred to me that I might also refresh my memory of what Susan Wise Bauer says about reading biography, in her book The Well-Educated Mind.

Book Cover-Roy Jenkins-William GladstoneBook Cover-Susan Wise Bauer-Well-Educated MindBook Cover-Thomas Berger-Little Big Man

Not only had I forgotten what Bauer says about biography, I had forgotten that she doesn’t say anything about biography as such. Rather, she has a chapter on reading autobiography. And her guidelines are fairly specific to this sub-genre, with only limited application to biography in general. Still, my wandering eye surveyed the pages on autobiography. In there, she recommends several worthy examples. Among them is Mary Rowlandson’s The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration (1682). This autobiography Bauer calls a “captivity narrative,” as if this is a recognized sub-species of the genre. This was news to me, but it was plausible.

This evening—mind you, this was several hours later the same day—I was relaxing with a different book. I had ordered Thomas Berger’s novel Little Big Man and it arrived with today’s junk mail. Naturally, I began with the Introduction by Brooks Landon. It is mercifully short, so getting to the first page of the novel itself was relatively pain-free.

But now I come to the coincidence that occasions this post.

It was entirely coincidental when I read Brooks Landon’s opinion that this novel is “a literal model of the traditional ‘captivity narrative'” (page xvi).

There it was again—”captivity narrative”—twice in one day, with no recollection of prior encounters with the term. Certainly, the term is not (or was not) a part of my active vocabulary. So why, with no real familiarity of the term, did I encounter two uses of it in such a disconnected sequence of events, in two books, one a work of non-fiction and the other a novel—all within the space of a few hours?

What difference does it make? you ask. But that’s the point, you see. It makes no difference. It just happened. It was a coincidence of no consequence!

But coincidences often are thought to be consequential just in the nature of the case. And so it is doubly puzzling that inconsequential coincidences should happen so often.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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