The Browsing Algorithm

common_reader_catalogCharles Simic has one of his gently bookish rants up at the NYRBlog, on a subject that’s always near and dear to my heart: the uncertain future of browsing. The gradual shuttering of used bookstores all over the country, says Simic, will surely curtail those moments of finding books that were never on our radar to begin with, the happy serendipity of looking for one thing and finding another, the discovery of something with a compelling cover or coercive blurb that you didn’t know you couldn’t live without until the moment you laid eyes on it.

This is not, of course, news. I’ll admit to enjoying Simic’s posts not only in spite of their not setting the world on fire, but maybe because of it—they’re warm and reassuring, like a conversation you might get into in the back aisles of the Strand with a kindly stranger. But what I do find interesting is the commentary the article has garnered; how a subject like this becomes a kind of catalyst, or a litmus, for everyone who holds an opinion about the state of books in the world. Not that it’s news that online commenters consistently veer off into their own screeds no matter what the original topic. But I can’t help feeling that a lot of the people putting in their two cents here aren’t really interested in the original topic to begin with; they’re looking for the opening in the conversation they need to let you know that e-books are killing print! or that e-books are the wave of the future, print is dead! or that bookstores are doing fine, thanks—there’s one in my town! Everyone’s got a horse in this race, which is probably a good thing for books in general.

Ballantine. Wild Tigers & Tame FleasAnd maybe there’s just not all that much to say that is on topic. Browsing is a fairly specific literary kink; I know plenty of wide-ranging, adventurous readers who never buy a book they don’t intend to, who see that kind of random arrangement as an imposition rather than a gift. Me, I like a little element of surprise. How else would I have come across Wild Tigers and Tame Fleas, Bill Ballantine’s tales of a life spent with circus animals, or Seymour Krim’s funky Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer, or No Longer on the Map: Discovering Places that Never Were, or The Penguin Book of Infidelities, or Janet Lembke’s irresistibly-titled Dangerous Birds, or Brendan Behan’s New York, with its wonderful scrabbly illustrations by Paul Hogarth? That being just a modest sample of the books I’ve picked up entirely by happy accident from used bookstores, street vendors, church bazaars, and library sales. I know exactly what Simic is talking about; it’s sentimental but it’s also important.

However, I do take exception to one sentiment expressed here, if indirectly, in the link he provides to Charles Rosen’s post on the lost pleasures of browsing (and if they were already lost when it was first published in 2009, heaven help us now). In his own elegy for books in hand, Rosen compares online book shopping with an earlier version of the book-sniffers’ dilemma: mail order.

I realize that mail order shopping has been going on for a long time, but have always thought that this destroys one of the pleasures of civilized life. I do not understand how one can buy clothes without trying them on, and as for books, the individual book should seduce and inspire you to buy it. Of course, a century ago and even less, ranchers in sparsely settled sections of the West used to get mail-order brides. That seems to me similar to buying books online, and equally likely to lead to customer dissatisfaction.

And here’s where he’s wrong. While online shopping is, by necessity, dependent on showing the people what they want when they want it, mail order book catalogs are much more traditionally … browsey. Consider Daedalus. Or even better, wax nostalgic with me for a minute about A Common Reader, the now-defunct mail order book catalog once run by James Mustich, who is currently editor-in-chief of the Barnes & Noble Review. Its stock was hand-picked and eclectic as hell, with little print catalogs that showed up in the mail every three or four weeks with selections jumbled together like some kind of marvelous literary mix tape, illustrated with spot engravings and each title bearing a blurb that was more personal recommendation than summary. In the distant days before social reading sites, literary forums and blogs, I found more books there than anywhere, poring joyfully over the catalogs, circling titles—a few to be splurged on, but mostly hoarded for later. I always assumed there would be a later, but the company dissolved in 2006. I’ve yet to find anything quite like it, and I know I’m not alone—there’s at least one person on Goodreads who’s working on recreating a few of their catalogs. I didn’t save a single one of the dozens I had in the house—who saves catalogs?—and I’m really sorry about that.

So, no; the two are not all that much alike at all. Online booksellers have worked up sophisticated algorithms to show you what they think you’ll want, but mail order, like used bookstores, show you what they’ve got—it’s up to you to decide how you feel about it. Maybe that’s just another kind of algorithm that needs to be incorporated: the hand-sell (Ron Hogan’s got the right idea on a small scale). Which is not to say, of course, that the used bookstore model needs to be updated either. But maybe a new generation of book buyers attuned to the joys of browsing will find, in its heart, the need—or at least the love—to keep the dusty old second-hand bookshop alive.

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