Earlier this week, I was part of a small group of businessmen meeting with a professor from one of our State Universities. We will be serving as mentors in one of his classes this semester. After the meeting was over, a few of us remained to discuss ways we could help the professor in a different class. The professor started describing a book that he had written but was no longer using and the various problems he has had with the publisher. During this conversation, someone made a comment likening the professor’s book to “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.”
Edwin Drood? I had never heard of this book.
The person who had made the comment explained that it was the last novel written by Charles Dickens, the only mystery written by Dickens and that the famed author died before the book was finished and that we don’t know the ending.
I wanted to remember that. I wanted to share it with my wife because she is a Dickens fan. She has a collection of his books, as well as a book about his life. I was pretty sure that she would know about this book. But I forgot. Despite the fact that this had been the most interesting thing I heard during this meeting, it was lost in the complexity of my afternoon. Lunch with my daughter, a visit to the dentist and catching up on the small pile of email that had collected in my inbox all seemed more important that Mr. Dickens’ unfinished work.
Hours later, I crawled into bed, eager to continue reading a book on railroad disasters in the early days of train service in England. This book, “Red for Danger” was a Christmas gift from my friend David who lives in England and is a fan of trains, model trains and train history. The book is more historic than action-thriller. The author works through accidents methodically, explaining not only what went wrong and the often horrific results, but also how these early accidents set the stage for the safety regimen that characterizes modern railroads. Modern being the mid 1900’s when this book was written.
I had left off just before a chapter on accidents that resulted from the negligence of workmen and trains traveling through work zones. It seems that signaling trains of the unexpected dangers posed by maintenance activity was not yet a well-established practice in the day. The day being June 9th, 1865. One of the stories in this chapter was about the repairs to the Staplehurst Bridge. The work crew failed to account for a train running on a flexible schedule. The train crossed the bridge while it was under repair and only the engine, the tender and one car made it across the shallow river. Ten passengers died and 49 were injured. One interesting bit of information about this train wreck is the fact that the lead passenger car, the only one to make it across the bridge, was carrying none other than Charles Dickens. Mr. Dickens worked to help the injured passengers and was severely affected by the accident. The author added:
This seemed a little too weird for me. That I’ve lived over 60 years without knowing about this book, only to hear about it twice in the same day? I looked into this and discovered that it is, perhaps, an example of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.
“Baader-Meinhof is the phenomenon where one happens upon some obscure piece of information–often an unfamiliar word or name–and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.”
I say perhaps because not everyone accepts that this is a phenomenon. Some say that the reason these interesting connections seem important is because we fail to notice things that are not interesting. One source added:
“This tendency to ignore the “uninteresting” data is an example of selective attention.”
Normally, I might agree with that. I’m selectively attentive for sure. That’s a fact. You can ask my family. Actually, they might go as far as to say that I am oblivious to the world around me. It’s nice how people who love you can be honest about such things.
Regardless of my condition, I did find this story about Dickens to be interesting. Despite the fact that I didn’t remember to tell my wife about it, I think I would have remembered hearing about it before.
On the other hand, I am being careful not to read too much into these events. I’ve found websites that say: “all coincidences have meaning.” I’m not sure what meaning this could have and, if it has meaning, what is it? Should I not ride trains? Should I read The Mystery of Edwin Drood? Should I not read it? Should I look for other coincidences involving Mr. Dickens? Well, I already wrote about one of those.
Not only was Charles Dickens on the ill-fated train in England in 1865, he was on a boat in the Windsor Locks Canal in 1842. I ride my bike on the Windsor Locks Canal path regularly. Windsor Locks is the 4th smallest town in the 3rd smallest state in the United States, but Charles Dickens was here, traveling the same path I travel.
While I don’t agree with those who would suggest that there is nothing to Baader-Meinhof or coincidences for that matter, I did enjoy reading this sarcastic quote from another book I haven’t read:
“A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish – but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”
― Vladimir Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark
Perhaps a quote from a different book by Mr. Dicken’s is more deserving of my attention:
“What connexion can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!”
― Charles Dickens, Bleak House
That is more on-point to my study of this kluge of coincidence. Charles Dickens and I have been curiously brought together.
Have you experienced the Baader-Mienhof Phenomonon? Is it real? Is it a bunch of hooey? Let me know what you think but be prepared to hear a related tale in an upcoming post.