Review: Serendipity by Thomas J. Thorson

★★★★★ Serendipity by Thomas J. Thorson

The big picture that we’re taught in school is rarely the completely accurate picture, and curiosity can bring you down some fascinating and unforgettable rabbit holes. In Serendipity: Seemingly Random Events, Insignificant Decisions, and Accidental Discoveries that Altered History by Thomas J. Thorson, readers are welcomed into a long and disparate list of historical tales that exemplify the uncertainty of life, and the unbelievable ways that luck has influenced our common existence.

The book is a series of stories about well-known historical events and figures, but these are stories that few have ever heard before. Did you know that Handel, one of the greatest composers in history, nearly had his life cut short in the middle of an orchestra-pit duel? Have you heard the sheer blind luck story of how Dr. Seuss nearly gave up on his dreams to write children’s stories, but happened to walk down the right street in New York at precisely the right time? These tales veer from monumentally important turning points in the fate of our global society, to whimsical anecdotes that will make you shake your head in wonder at the nearly miraculous nature of life.

A book like this could easily get too obscure, searching for insignificant slivers of history that have weird or unexplained elements in them, but Thorson’s approach is bold and substantive. Often keeping the identity of the historical figure in question hidden through much of the opening anecdote, readers naturally begin to play a guessing game, trying to determine who or what is being discussed, and what scrap of their own memory they can relate to the story they’re reading.

This a fascinating and entertaining way to learn new facts about an old subject, and impossible not to immediately engage in each story, while also knowing that there will be a satisfying payoff within a page or two. Thorson does an excellent job weaving these (at times) complicated stories into simple yarns, and then articulately filling in some blanks for readers after the big reveal. It’s quite a feat to take these historical anecdotes and turn them into a page-turning mystery.

The writing is smart and polished, with very little room for wasted words, and it’s clear that Thorson takes pleasure in building suspense, considering that he does it very well. The book not only acts as a collection of trivia for those with an interest in history, but also serves as a philosophical reminder of life and the actions we take. It is easy to dismiss the significance of your everyday choices, and the book really drives home the idea that every turn you make could change your life – and the lives of others – forever.

Serendipity reminds us that in our constant mortal whirlpool of variability, chance, luck, tragedy, and time, there is no way to see the future, but there is a way to live more consciously. While this scope of advice isn’t hard to find, presenting such an impactful lesson in such an enjoyable and well-designed book is far more rare, and Thorson does it with impeccable style.


Serendipity: Seemingly Random Events, Insignificant Decisions, and Accidental Discoveries that Altered History