Is browsing a dying art?


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Pianist and author Charles Rosen, now in his 80s, praises browsing in bookstores at the New York Review of Books blog:

I almost never want to buy a book until I have held it in my hands and riffled through the pages. ... When I was a teenager, I used to spend a lot of time on 4th Avenue in New York, where there were more than a dozen secondhand stores, all of which have now gone. I spent all my pocket money there, and my browsing is responsible for most of my literary education. On nearby Broadway, there is still the Strand, of course, but also in the neighborhood, the great shop of Dauber and Pine on 5th Avenue and 12th Street was long ago taken over by the New School for Social Research. Mr. Dauber and Mr. Pine hated each other and never spoke, one staying on the ground floor, the other reigning in the basement. They bought up scholarly libraries and sold the books at very reasonable terms. Most of what I know about literature from 1500 to 1700 is due to them.


Rosen celebrates the joy of hand-held intrigue and serendipitous discovery. And while there are no longer the used bookstores he remembers in New York, and Acres of Books in Long Beach is gone, there are still bookstores in which we can browse, stop and riffle through pages. It’s one of the best things about large chain bookstores -- lots of books.

But as he notes, the success of online booksellers indicates that getting our hands on a book really isn’t necessary anymore. We buy online using different criteria -- cover design, publishers’ blurbs, four stars from James in Minneapolis.

Does this mean we’ve lost our need for the physical encounter with a book? Like a child saying ‘let me see’ and extending an open hand, touching a book seemed to carry with it a kind of knowledge. Holding the thing meant knowing the thing. Having a personal, chance encounter made it yours -- say, your eyes caught on the line ‘This morning I go to the Big Slot and find it goatless,’ and you thought with a start, Wait, slot? Goat? for just a moment before deciding you must read on to know what, exactly, this George Saunders person was up to.

Seeing with our eyes and our hands, having our own individual interaction with a book’s pages, used to be important components of making a decision about what we wanted to read or buy. But maybe we don’t need to let our fingers do the stumbling anymore. Perhaps the only kind of browsing we need comes from Explorer, Firefox, Safari or Google Chrome.

-- Carolyn Kellogg