Thursday, January 04, 2007

Is Book Browsing an Endangered Pastime?

Since re-entering the blogosphere a few days ago after many months away, I’ve been busy checking through the blogs of some people I had read regularly back in the days. It’s been sort of like showing up at a high school reunion after many years – some people are exactly the same, while others have changed.

For one thing, there must be some kind of jammin', fertile electro-emissions coming from the computer screens when someone visits a blog site, because it seems at least half of the women whose sites I used to visit are now pregnant. In fact, most seem to be ready to deliver any day. There’s apparently been some very productive time spent away from the keyboard in the past half year or so. You rascals, you.

And I just about did one of those classic Oliver Hardy big-eyed double takes when I read the incredible news that Jeff was engaged. Man, people are getting together every which way around here! Did my mere absence cause all of this? (By the way, congratulations, Jeff).

My topic of the day, if I must have one, is books. Specifically, old, used, second-hand books, and the reading of them. In visiting my old cyber haunts, I came across this link to an essay by a Canadian, David Warren, lamenting the demise of antiquarian booksellers. An excerpt:
The Internet has been taking over their function -- inefficiently, since the main point of visiting a second-hand store is to discover books, not track them down. But the real cause lies deeper. Today, we have, especially among university graduates, a full generation of people who cannot read a book. This is especially true of graduates in the humanities, who have the additional disability of never having been exposed to one. They have learned only “theory,” from things that are not books. And their money is reserved for other “consumer durables.”
I also can relate to his description of his book acquisition habits, although I’m probably not as successful a winnower:
I once had a large library, of which I was inordinately proud. Thanks to accidents and vagaries of postmodern life, I now have a much smaller library, but one that has through the winnowing of necessity become more truly useful. So many books that I only piously hoped to read, went on to other pious hopers, leaving me only a core to which I cling, as to an identity.
If you’re like me, someone who actually enjoys spending hours wandering around a used bookstore or a large public or university library, just browsing the aisles to see what’s on them, then you’ve probably already gotten the feeling that this is an endangered pastime. More and more libraries are ditching their “physical” books, which take up space and must regularly be cleaned and re-bound, for “electronic” books that can be accessed so cleanly and easily in the four square feet of space it takes to support an Internet portal.

I work as a volunteer for my local public library’s used book sale. It’s our job throughout the year to sort and store all of the used books people donate. I was surprised to learn just how many of those discarded books are from the public library itself. Their only sin is that they’re not new or “hot” books, possibly covering subjects or by authors that are no longer in style, and I guess, therefore, irrelevant to the modern reader. It’s been eye-opening to me to see what librarians these days think isn’t worth saving shelf space for.

At the college where I work, long-range plans are being studied that would make indiscriminate browsing of the type I enjoy almost impossible. They’re thinking of one day going to an “off-site book retrieval system” of some sort. What that means is that they won’t actually get rid of the physical books, they’ll just store them where the public can’t get at them. To do so, we’ll have to fill out a request slip with the title, author and call number, and then some sort of mechanical Rube Goldberg contraption will reach into the bowels of the storage warehouse, put the book on a moving pathway and eventually deliver it to the circulation desk. That way, the library folks can get rid of those big shelves and have lots of extra room for more couches and computer terminals and espresso machines.

The main problem with this system, and with visiting electronic used booksellers on the Internet, is that it eliminates, or at least severely impairs, browsing with no specific end in mind. You pretty much have to know either the title of the book you’re looking for, or its author. There will be no more of, say, wanting to see what types of books the library or bookstore might have on one subject, and then getting completely captivated by books on another entirely different subject that were noticed along the way.

I have found some of my favorite books and authors by sheer indiscriminate browsing. I’ll go into the library looking for one certain book, find it, and then start looking at the books standing nearby on the shelves. If I notice an interesting title, or an attractive or exotic binding, I’ll pull out the book and start flipping through. Many times I’m disappointed, but I cherish those times when I find some author, possibly many years dead and unread for generations, who tickles my fancy.

I mean, how in the world are you supposed to pick out an attractive art book – or a book to read to your child before bedtime – unless you can phsyically pick them up and flip through them? Yes, yes, I know you can conceivably look at any book online, but how much time and trouble does that take? You can take down a book and decide quickly by looking into it if it’s not for you, then pick up the next and repeat the process. Imagine how much more complicated (and how less enjoyable) that task is online.

Of course, I know that you can go into a big chain bookstore like Barnes & Noble or Borders and browse to your heart's content. And if the book you're in the mood for is something recent, or something eternally popular, then you might very well be in luck. But you'll find none of the quirky, old, forgotten books that reside in libraries or used bookshops. And the selection will be a mile wide and an inch deep. Take the works of Charles Dickens. Sure, almost any chain bookstore will stock copies of Great Expectations or David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. But how many will stock every one of Dicken's novels? And will there be all those interesting books about Dickens and his life and times, and the other books analyzing Dickens' works, which a good library will have close at hand? Doubtful.

Oh, well. At least down here in Texas we have the Half Price Books chain, which is where I spend a sizeable amount of my disposable income each year (although I have to drive to either Austin or Dallas to visit one). They seem to be doing a boffo business, so I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon, even if the public libraries here go with one of these soulless retrieval systems.


Inkling said...

Now, I'm very glad you're back, but I must say, this is a depressing post. My husband keeps talking about how excited he is to be able to read digital books, and I keep making gagging motions and claiming I will never. Never. However, I think there are enough of us out there who would protest the loss of real libraries and bookstores, don't you think? They wouldn't just go over our heads, would they? (What worries me is that I have not actually hand-written a real letter in several years--and I used to so love to write letters.)

sarahgrace said...

Okay...I've been wanting to take my munchkins to the local library for ages now...and that's it- I'm going to get off my rear and take my pregnant belly down to the library and enjoy this passtime before it's pulled right our from underneath me, no matter how much certain people I know may scoff.

Stephanie said...

Not being able to browse books?! I will be absolutely horrified if this ever happens. I suppose it gives me a reason (if I needed one) to keep buying books so that I could just do my own book browsing at home!

Anonymous said...

I mostly love Half Price Books. However, they do have a system of marking books down for clearance, and then putting them in the recycling been fairly rapidly. I am not able to walk into a HPB and find a book that's been on the shelf, patiently waiting for me, for years.

I do, however, find a lot of remaindered and overstocked books, and a lot of recently published books. And I have to admit that I head for the clearance racks first.