Sunday, October 6, 2013

On Browsing

It's been a while since I posted about real books vs e-books. When I started blogging I had a long pent up rant going on regarding the trade press, which seemed to be uncritically accepting the approaching dominance of e-readers and various other non-book books. Between those first posts and a NACS poll some months later showing that 70% of college aged people prefer their books the old-fashioned way, I felt the need to write shifting to other points on the bookselling compass.

Then, a few days ago I was watching my 25 year old son reading the dictionary and I realized I needed to expand on some of those thoughts.

Starting out, I should clarify "reading the dictionary:" 

Open a dictionary (I recommend the American Heritage, 5th Edition) to any interesting word and read a few pages without putting it back down. My mother used to read dictionaries, cover to cover. She was an author, as is my son, but my son didn't spend enough time with her to pick up such habits, so I think it must be a genetic trait.

That is partly humor, partly a gut feeling. There is that old stele/clay tablet/papyrus/paper-mind connection, the physical surface on which are printed or carved the words we read and take into our minds as our own thoughts. These thoughts and ideas may be communicable on screens, but apparently to some lesser degree. Why else do scientists and engineers of all persuasions, people who use their minds as tools to an extent most of us cannot imagine, still paper their computers and walls with sticky notes? Their offices are often crowded with books, walls sporting white boards covered with scrawls old and new. Web developers will often whip out tiny notebooks of the 3-for-a-dollar variety, when they are taking notes in a meeting or just capturing thoughts for later applications. 
I have buyers who never respond to email of any kind, but will order from paper mailings. Most new parents still instinctively surround their children with real books, making sure they learn to read from them rather than from screens.

When we browse through any book, we have a more open, curious, comfortable mind if the book we are browsing through is real. E-books are made for reading straight through, but they are harder to browse, and the experience is less fulfilling than with real books. This may be lost on people who have never read real books, but many people who read now who have not done so much in the past have often begun reading because of the allure of these gadgets. Some will become readers of real books due to this difference. There is a physical interaction, tactile and visual, with a real book that does not have an equivalent in any of the digital reading experiences. 

Yes, I've made my living for more than three decades by buying and selling books. Nothing about being a bargain book dealer, buyer, or wholesaler transforms to e-anything. I am 100% biased. But when we buy and sell (or read) real books, we are doing something that has been done, in one way or another, for thousands of years. Some of us buy and sell new books, some used, and all of us are dealing in objects which transcend their status as objects. They might be new or they might be tens or hundreds of years old.

This goes beyond the obvious practical advantages of real books over e-books. You might have 100 books on your e-reader, but drop it once the wrong way and it's all gone. Sure, buy another of the expensive, fragile electronic devices and try to reload it with everything you had on your old one, but what a pain. Real books are there, beautiful and inviting, on your shelves until you want to read them, and if you drop them, be it off the side of your bed or out a third story window onto a concrete sidewalk, you won't think anything of it, you will just pick it up and start reading where you left off.

And about those 100 books, or whatever, loaded on these things. You might read more than one at a time, but not often.  Most will be lost in the ether. They're there, but not inviting you over to the table or bookcase; they are out of sight, out of mind. 

I often focus on how the shopping experience for e-books, or shopping for real books on the Internet, is so different from shopping in a bookstore. As customers browse in a bookstore, they see books which they did not know they wanted until they see them. They might not have even known they were interested in the category until they see the stack as they pass through your store on the way back to the children's section. This is the ideal situation for bargain books.

Now, looking at the experience of reading, I find the same thing to be true, only more so. There is no browsing a dictionary, or any other book, on an e-reader. You might search or scroll, but browsing with a real book, a mindful and, at the same time absent minded exercise, involves riffling through the pages, stopping at a place just because.

There was a bargain bookstore that closed back in the early 2000's. The owner told me she felt her sales dropping since the advent of search engines. People's minds, she said, were now so tuned to focus on a specific book (or text string) that they were looking for only that one item when they walked through her door. They had stopped coming in just to go slowly through the store, finding something that appealed to them at that moment. Impulse buys have driven the bargain book business for years, and she was describing a change in this behavior, possibly due to search engines taking over how we think. 

Yet there are still bargain bookstores, thriving and growing. They do many things right, including moving stacks around, doing big new arrivals displays or tables. They buy wide and shallow, never relying too much on too few niches or titles, never assuming they know everything about what their customers want. They make it easy to shop their stores in every way they can, but they also make it rewarding and fun to browse.

Browse, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is probably from obsolete French broust, young shoot. 

I suppose that was from grazing, sometimes a synonym of browsing, and young shoots make for the best grazing. But, for me, I think of the fragile new path one takes when browsing through books or bookstores, almost finding that looked for title, or even finding it, then finding something that moves one in a new direction, maybe for life. 

Since I looked up browse on AH's online version, being in my Providence hotel room before NEIBA starts, I could not see what came before or after browse, and that young shoot ended there.

For more about these and other thoughts, please check out this page:

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