Here is what you can do with a paper thesaurus that you can’t do at thesaurus.com: You look up the word “happening” and somehow work your way around to “existence,” which you discover is the first entry in the thesaurus, a location delightfully fraught with meaning. Along the way you somehow manage to pass by the word “yeshiva.” (Yes, this really happened to me, though I cannot now reconstruct how “yeshiva” got in there.)
I worry sometimes that this running into what we weren’t looking for gets lost online, that when all our content is algorithmically processed to appeal to who we already are, we can no longer stumble across those things that will shape us into who we will become. E-books can’t fall off the shelf at you. Google can’t tell what’s in your soul from your geographic location and the list of Ted talks you’ve downloaded recently.
I think of chance encounters as the universe’s way of trying to get through to us, of circumventing our too-busy minds with well-targeted wake up calls. So I suppose it’s a little egotistic to think that the universe can’t handle this electronic device we’ve invented, as if we’re clever enough to disrupt cosmic communications by snagging them in our World Wide Web.
Here’s how synchronicity might happen online: You Google “couples snuggies,” and one of the links sends you to a scary website that puts a nasty virus on your computer. You take your computer to the computer store, where the person who helps you uses the word “yeshiva,” which happens to be just the word you needed to finish that poem you’ve been stuck on for weeks. (No, this didn’t really happen to me, well not exactly, but don’t Google couples snuggies and don’t ask why I did.)
I will still take the paper thesaurus down from the shelf sometimes just because it’s so much fun to wander around in the relatedness of words, but I’ll also keep in mind that the bigger relatedness out there can use any of the tools at its disposal.