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The Joy of Stoop Books

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My life, like yours, I suspect, can feel like it has been ingeniously designed for the sole purpose of strangling serendipity. Work days are built around back-to-back meetings and video calls; evenings revolve around children’s bedtimes; date nights have to be scheduled weeks in advance; even phone calls to catch up with friends can take multiple rounds of back-and-forth coordination by text.

I have found a secret antidote to all that structure, a magic portal that has no clock or key. It is a neighborhood stoop, or rather, the discarded books that gather there. For you, maybe that translates into a bargain bin or a giveaway pile; wherever you can find books that are weathered, dog-eared and inscribed to someone else. They call out to me like porch lights to a bug.

Why do I love other people’s books? Because they carry no obligation and no expectations, unlike that novel weighing down my night stand, from a friend who insisted that I love it. Or that other one, that won an award I should care about. Or the one I’ve been halfway through for a year. If you’re not on guard, your free time can easily become someone else’s.

Found books, meanwhile, are blissfully dislocated from any hint of duty or “discourse.” They are deserted islands. Population: one.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I purchased two well-reviewed books that had long been on my reading list. That evening, while walking the dog, I found a Saul Bellow novel from 1982 sitting on a stoop. I had never heard of it, and the cover had an unappetizing illustration of a bald man’s forehead, but I scooped up “The Dean’s December” like I had won the lottery. Later that night, as I stayed up reading Bellow on communist Romania (why not!), I beamed while my carefully considered new purchases lay untouched in my bag.

I delighted in each yellowed sentence: “The meat tasted of fire and suggested sacrifice. It carried a creaturely flavor; the smell of the stall, of the hide, was still there, and he had to suppress the unwanted feeling of animal intimacy that it gave him.”

So great! Isn’t it? Or am I too smitten to see straight? Am I predetermined to love stoop books inordinately because of my gratitude for the kismet? Did Ann Beattie write one of the greatest novels of all time in 1976, or do I love “Chilly Scenes of Winter” because I found it by a fireplace in an old ski house? Is Vikram Chandra’s Indian gangster epic the richest thriller ever conceived, or do I adore “Sacred Games” because I discovered it in someone else’s guest room?

My quest for gems hidden in plain sight makes me slow down as I walk the dog at night, exploring ordinary blocks that might otherwise pass in a blur. It has sparked my curiosity — a Spanish translation of Nicholas Nickleby? Huh! — and reliably rewarded me for it.

Serendipity can be hard to summon, but when you manage to find it — on a stoop or anywhere else — pause to appreciate the alchemy taking place: humdrum artifacts start to glow, as the dutiful melts away.

  • Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, endorsed Sweden’s bid to join NATO after it agreed to give Hungary more fighter jets, ending a 19-month blockade.

Other Big Stories

  • Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, proposed retaining indefinite military control of Gaza after the war ends. Palestinians denounced his plan.

  • A Manhattan jury found Wayne LaPierre, the N.R.A.’s former leader, liable for misspending charitable funds and ordered him to pay back more than $4 million.

  • Many Republicans are distancing themselves from an Alabama Supreme Court ruling that frozen embryos are children. Donald Trump said that in vitro fertilization should be legal, and Alabama lawmakers are weighing legislation to protect it.

  • The U.S. government said it considered new Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian territory that Israel occupies, to be illegal under international law.

  • Odysseus, the first private spacecraft to land on the moon, has toppled over but remains functional.

Precursor bonanza (Saturday and Sunday): The Academy Awards ceremony is March 10, but if you’re trying to win your office pool or are just an awards-show nerd, this is a weekend to watch. The Screen Actors Guild (aka SAG) Awards are streaming on Netflix Saturday, followed by the Film Independent Spirit (streaming on YouTube) and Producers Guild awards on Sunday. Since so many Oscar contenders are also up for these so-called precursor awards, you’ll get a sense of the front-runners and can bet accordingly.

“Shogun” (Tuesday): The first two episodes of this 10-part series are set to air next week, so we’ll soon know what a TV show in the works for over a decade looks like. Anything to fill the “True Detective: Night Country” hole in our hearts!

How much garlic is too much? The answer depends on your adoration for Allium sativum, the garlic species, and mine runs very deep. Naturally I’m happy to make J. Kenji López-Alt’s excellent San Francisco-style Vietnamese American garlic noodles. A pungent paste made from 20 cloves is cooked in butter, which mellows it quite a bit, while oyster, fish and soy sauces add a complex, savory depth. (Watch Kenji make the dish on YouTube.)

The hunt: A couple wanted a place in upstate New York with space for art supplies, music gear and chickens. Which home did they choose? Play our game.

What you get for $300,000: A 1920 two-bedroom cottage in New Braunfels, Texas; a one-bedroom condominium in Atlanta; or a 1925 Craftsman bungalow in Omaha.

Starting seeds indoors is a great way to get ahead on your planting, and to spend way less money than you would buying full-grown plants come spring. You’ll need a light source that’s strong enough to nurture baby seedlings through their first stages of life. But don’t be fooled by fancy packaging. After growing hundreds of seedlings in my living room, I can attest that standard LED shop lights (yes, the $20 ones you see in dingy basements or garages) are just as good as pricey grow lights. — Sebastian Compagnucci

No. 2 Houston vs. No. 11 Baylor, men’s college basketball: What’s that saying about an unstoppable force and an immovable object? Baylor’s offense is among the best in the country, while Houston has the No. 1 defense by a wide margin. The N.C.A.A. tournament is less than a month away; you might consider penciling in the winner of this one for a deep run in your bracket. Today at 12 p.m. Eastern on CBS.



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