“Synchronicity is the coming together of inner and outer events in a way that cannot be explained by cause and effect and that is meaningful to the observer.”
Carl Gustav Jung believed there was more to the world than is seen on its surface. He believed that the overreliance on rationality blinded the world to a power, maybe a kind of magic, that flowed in the veins of the planet. It is a power that suffuses the world, our personal unconscious and the greater collective unconscious. He called the action of this power: synchronicity. What others call coincidence, he thought might be the world operating synchronistically, in a flow of external events, only connected to our thoughts, feelings and insecurities by the power of intuition to find a common meaning.
His belief in synchronicity first manifested itself while working with a patient. He was stuck. His treatment seemed to have failed. The young woman remained out of his reach, skeptical and guarded from discussing her inner world. One day, towards what was quickly becoming the end of their time together, she told Jung that she had a powerful dream the night before about a golden scarab that someone had gifted to her. Just then, there was a tapping at the window. Jung lifted the glass and into the room flew a beetle with gold and green coloring. He took it in his hand and presented it to his patient. Both doctor and patient were convinced that something powerful had happened. The synchronicity of the scarab represented some act of both creation and furtherance that helped the patient to unlock the doors to her inner self that she had guarded so closely. Afterward, her treatment reached a positive conclusion.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but working at Dyslexia Libros is often a lesson in the nature of synchronicity. The books and stories that fly in and out of the place on a regular basis are like so many sacred scarabs. It even started my first day on the job.
When I came in for my very first shift several years ago, I had no idea what to do and no one seemed interested in telling me. I felt like a fish out of water and here came my first customer. I could tell he found the book he was looking for by the way he made such a quick decision after pulling it off the shelf. He started walking toward me, perched on a stool behind the counter. I glanced at the cover, but his hand covered most of it. I had a fleeting thought that the cover looked familiar, but I could not be certain. It showed a tattered flag, blowing in the wind, and barren mountains in the background. I was intrigued, but then overtaken with the thought of: “Okay, what do I do now?” No one had showed me the ropes of the place. I didn’t even know how I conveyed the day’s take to whomever was in charge. But that was a problem for later. First I had to make some money! Well, I figured, I’ll just look inside the book and see how much it costs. The rest will be tomorrow’s problem.
The customer handed the book to me. It was The History of Scotland by J.D. Mackie. I muttered to myself, “No, that’s not possible!”
He prodded, “What’s not possible?”
I don’t know what he might have been thinking. I opened the book to the inside front cover, and there was the inscription, just as I expected. “To Bill, enjoy this description of our mutual homeland. Scott.”
I turned the book around for the guy to see. “That’s me,” I said excitedly, pointing to the inscription.
He was confused. I told him that this was my first day on the job and that this was the first book I had ever sold. I told him that out of more than one thousand titles in the store, he had chosen a book that I had sold to Dyslexia two years before when I first came to town. I had packed that book with me when I left Tennessee. It was the coolest thing. I knew this book. I had once owned this book! I told him this was the perfect way to begin my job here. It felt whole. It was magic. It was synchronous.
After a few weeks in Dyslexia I had figured out most of the mechanics of the business. By looking over the past sale sheets, I got a pretty good idea what we paid for books when buying. The sale prices were all marked in the stock so I knew what the going rates were for books we sold. It took me a week before I went looking for someone to pass on the daily receipts. It took close to two weeks to figure out what I got paid.
After that, I started to get acquainted with the stock. The shelves needed a good dusting. I realized I could kill two birds with one stone if I pulled them in blocks, dusted the shelves, and took a look at the books before I re-shelved them. I’m a little restless, and don’t take well to just sitting around.
I was dusting the nonfiction section one day. I pulled a book off the shelf that looked intriguing. It was an old paperback from back in the days when the cover only revealed the name of the book and the author. No description on the back. No testimonials in the inside cover. Just a book. The cover art was a little mysterious. There was what looked like a hooded face. I hadn’t the faintest idea what it was about. The book was in good condition. The publisher was Time-Life, and it had a solid look to it. It was Kabloona, by Gontran de Poncins, originally published in 1941.
I started reading the preface, by the editor, Lewis Galantiere: “This is an extraordinary book. Ostensibly a study of Eskimo life, it is actually a study of the Stone Age mind. There is nothing in or out of print quite like it, and it is not probable that anything like it will ever be written again. Books like this are really accidents; they are born of the wildly improbable chance that a particular kind of odd personality will encounter a particular kind of odd subject and that their meeting will ignite a totally unexpected flame. These things cannot be predicted; they just happen.”
It was a compelling introduction. It read, it seemed, almost like Jung’s definition of synchronicity itself. It struck me then, and it has since occurred to me on a number of occasions, that the “odd personality / odd subject” referenced in that introduction might just as well describe my experience of stumbling into this quirky little book joint called Dyslexia Libros.
I put a marker between those pages and wrote “Read This” on the top so it could be seen sticking out of the book. I put the book on the workbench in the middle of the store so customers would see it. I left it there for a couple of hours, and then taking my own recommendation, I pulled it back to the corner of my counter. I wasn’t sure I was ready to sell this one yet.
That marked the beginning of the Can’t-Sell Corner shelf space. I still use it now, four years later. It’s a space for rare gems that I know I’m going to read someday soon. I showed Kabloona to many customers. I either read or asked them to read that opening paragraph in the preface. Generally, they were as intrigued as I, and disappointed when I told them I couldn’t quite sell it yet. I don’t know how many people wrote the title and author in order to buy when they returned home.
After a month I realized I couldn’t just let it sit there indefinitely, if for no other reason than that the corner was beginning to get crowded. I took it home one night and couldn’t put it down. I read it in two days.
The title, Kabloona, is a rough adaptation of the Inuit word for white man, and the book is a portrait of the Inuit way of life from a European point of view. The author lived, hunted, and traveled with “the Eskimo,” as he called them, however, the book is as much about Gontran de Poncins as it is about the Inuit. He was a son of an aristocratic family without much means. He studied and tried out careers in the military, art, and business without achieving any satisfaction. He was disenchanted with the complexity of modern life. In his early thirties he took an interest in anthropology, and particularly in the lifestyles of “primitive” man. This interest led him to Tahiti. He succeeded in getting a few travel pieces published based on his experiences there. Seeking another, more “primitive,” society to investigate, he concluded that the Inuit might be the most “stone-age” people left on earth. He made plans to visit. With very little financial backing he made it to the northernmost shore of Canada in 1938, where he waited until a group of Inuit agreed to take him along on a hunting trip onto the Arctic ice pack. He remained with varying bands of Inuit people for more than a year.
Some people believe that Poncins wrote about the Inuit in a condescending way, expressing cultural superiority. I cut him a little more slack than that. He was an untrained observer with few preconceived notions of that society. He captured, first hand, a view of the Inuit at a moment in time just prior to their introduction to other cultures moving north through Canada. I think he did it out of pure curiosity and I can forgive him for his lack of sophistication when it came to the more culturally sensitive anthropology of recent decades. He was an adventurer and a writer, and he did both well.
The book was an immediate success and more was expected of the author. Sadly, Poncins never published anything else of any import. This truly was the story of an odd personality meeting an odd subject.
From my end, behind the counter at Dyslexia Libros, Kabloona is by far my most recommended book, even if I wouldn’t let my original copy go for a long time. I took that copy home to Tennessee one trip, thinking my son Wyatt would like it. He liked it so much, he purchased another copy and sent it to a friend who was working in Alaska. I purchased another copy and sent it to my brother in Chicago. He liked it so much he loaned it to a friend, who then loaned it to another friend, and it never made it back to my brother. I loaned my copy to my roommate. He liked it so much he read it twice before giving it back! Then I found an original, first-edition, hardbound copy in a Washington, DC used bookstore for three dollars. When I returned to Guatemala, I loaned the original paperback to someone, whom I’ve since forgotten. It is currently in that magical land of Loaned-but-Unreturned books where some of the best reads go to get away for awhile. Somehow, though, the ones that need to come home, always do.
A woman came in one day and sold me Papillon, the memoir of Henri Charrière. We had a long conversation about the book and about our own trips, at different times to Cuba. Charrière was imprisoned on the famed French penal colony, Devil’s Island. He never stopped trying to escape and, finally, he succeeded. She loved it. Many people have asked for that title over the years, and I seldom have it. She told me she would be leaving town in a few days on her way to Nicaragua. I purchased it and resold the book the next day to another traveler. You know a hot ticket when you’ve got one.
I received this post from the customer who sold me the book no more than three or four days later:
“Hi! I am the girl who had similar Cuba experiences to you; the one who sold you Papillon. I thought you may be interested to know that I am now in Nicaragua at a hostel and on the bed next to me is Papillon. I looked inside and you guessed it — my book! Can’t wait to meet the new owner, and see the journey that that fabulous book has been on. Ciao! Claire”
Apparently, the book took to its title, ‘Butterfly’ in French, and flew ahead to meet her again. That’s nice.
Some of these occurrences seem made up. It couldn’t happen that way, we say, even though we’ve all had moments like this. But I think our disbelief is often because we focus too much on the rational. If you are less focused, but more open, you’ll likely find more meaningful connections that are generally hidden under an expectation of order and reason. Maybe it is something like when you just look away from a group of stars and see more of them out of the corner of your eye. Synchronicity works in the spaces between what seems possible, it lives in the counterintuitive realm.
Consider this: It was a Sunday afternoon and a woman was poking around the nonfiction shelves. I try to stay acquainted with the titles and am always rethinking what category they should be in or whether I have enough related titles to create a new category. I had recently created a ‘Travel’ shelf that was a sub-heading of nonfiction. The customer picked out Mutant Message Down Under by Marlo Morgan that I had reluctantly placed in that section. Had I wanted to, I could have also classified it under ‘New Age,’ or ‘Discredited and Debunked,’ too. Mutant Message is a purportedly true account of a woman traveling in the Australian Outback with a tribe of indigenous Australians from whom she learns many secrets of aboriginal life and belief that are applicable to modern day spirituality. In recent years, the book has been disavowed by anthropologists as a work of fiction, not unlike The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge series, by Carlos Castaneda. Yet, Mutant Message and the Don Juan series continue to be sought after. It is not the bookseller’s role to judge harshly.
She bought the book.
I was off on Monday, so I paid a visit to one of my prime, secret book stashes near Antigua. They’re always out there. You just have to keep your eyes and ears open and then hit them when you feel they are going to be hot. There was another copy of Mutant Message. I gave it some thought. Do I want to go back there again? I asked myself. It had taken months to sell it the first time. But it was sitting right on top of the stack, just one day later. “Never look a gift synchronicity in the mouth,” I thought.
I bought it.
The very next day, on Tuesday, a female customer walked in and told me me right off, “I’m looking for a particular title.”
“Well, that’s probably a long shot,” I replied soberly. “We only have about 1,500 titles.”
“It’s called Mutant Message, Something Something,” she said.
I told her the story. She couldn’t believe it.
Just coincidence I guess. Sure. Just coincidence. Or maybe . . .
One more thing about the book, Kabloona. Remember that my son sent a copy to his friend in Alaska. The friend loved the book, too. When he left Alaska a few months later he took the book with him, expecting to give it to someone along the road. He had it in his day pack at a beach in Los Angeles one day after arriving back in the Lower Forty Eight. He left the pack on his towel when he went swimming. When he came back the damn pack was gone. He followed some footprints that appeared to be running south. A few hundred yards down the beach, he spied his bag laying in the sand.
The only thing missing was Kabloona.
Forgive me if I think it’s just trying to make its way back to Dyslexia Libros right here in Antigua. I’ll be sure to catch it when it blows through the front door.
“Synchronicity is an ever present reality for those who have eyes to see it.”