“Come In And Find That Perfect Book You Weren’t Looking For!”

February 26, 2009

Every year, there’s at least one obligatory article at Northwestern profiling Roger Carlson and Bookman’s Alley.  But this article goes beyond that and profiles Evanston’s very-much-dying used/independent bookstore scene, and it’s an excellent piece for anyone interested in reading about books, bookstores, and the changing ways we buy and sell them.  (Or if you’re just feeling nostalgic.)

This, for instance, is one store that I’ll regret never having known (and that lonely sign for it was already vaguely unsettling before I knew what, exactly, it was the ghost of):

‘According to Howard Cohen, owner of Howard’s Books, Great Expectations was “the best philosophy bookstore in the United States for many years.” Whereas Barnes & Noble might carry three or four books by Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza, Great Expectations would fill three or four shelves.

Once a Northwestern undergraduate and now a history professor here, Jeff Rice was the last owner of the store. He paints a romantic picture of it, a place where professors would meet, famous writers would come and go (Saul Bellow got kicked out of the store “for being an asshole”) and people would get into political arguments and shouting matches while a Cubs game played in the background.’

My eternal problem with buying books online is that you can’t really browse — at least not the same way you can in an actual book store.  And what makes an independent or used book store so much better for browsing than a chain store is the sheer variety and eclecticism of the collections: they keep the authors who don’t sign large advances alive.  (Not to mention that they’re about the only places you can find decent poetry/philosophy sections, though some chain stores do better than others on this front, normally — in my experience — depending on how close to a college they are.)

Consider: Andrew Sullivan recounts discovering Michael Oakeshott accidentally while browsing in a used book store; Paul Breslin, an English professor here who is a leading scholar on Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, discovered Walcott in a used book store in New York because there were palm trees on the cover and opened it to find poems that left him, he says, stunned; Ezra Pound was in a bookshop on the Paris strand when he stumbled onto an old edition of the Latin translation of the Odyssey that he then translated and adapted into the first of his Cantos — and, in a great “What If?” for lovers of the Modernists — he was forced to choose between it and a translation of the Iliad because he could only afford to buy one.

Though none of my used book experiences have been quite so momentous, I came across Saul Bellow’s Herzog — which is among the best postwar American novels I have read — before having read a word of his; the story is the same with Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism — both not at all what I was looking for.  And most of my books related in any way to Classical authors — in original or in translation — have come from only slightly more deliberate browsing sessions.

I guess what I’m saying is, if we didn’t have these eclectic little shops to wander in, the accidents of history (or at least of recent thought) would be that much more homogenous, and that much the worse for it.


3 Responses to ““Come In And Find That Perfect Book You Weren’t Looking For!””

  1. Hi JL,

    My experience of book browsing online vs bookshelf browsing is very positive. Consider Amazon.com’s recommendation algorithm. A search
    on Amazon for ‘‘x’’ returns x items, the default
    sort being by relevance (as opposed to price, reviews, publication
    date). Also given some prominence is a category
    ‘‘Customers who bought items in your Recent History also
    bought x, y, z . . ..’’ supplemented by Listmania, lists of
    salient material compiled by agents (all-comers as in Wikipedia)
    who ostensibly have some intimacy with the topic.
    There are also so-called ‘‘reviews’’ of a given title. All this
    over and above a record of my recent purchases which
    included search related material, assuming one hasn’t
    expunged Amazon’s cookies from one’s browser. Even on
    offer is the opportunity, for many titles, to peruse the contents
    page, read an excerpt and even be enticed by the dustjacket
    hyperbole. Furthermore, one can be alerted by email
    when a new title or new edition of a book matching one’s
    previous trails of interest, will become available: a preorder
    entitling the buyer to a discount.

    **This all adds up to a highly bespoke experience that is better tailored than being in a bookstore, because it is unlikely the bookstore even
    stocks a title you have yet to discover as one scans the shelves – there is no ‘‘pheromone’’ trail.**

  2. JL Wall Says:

    What you’re saying is true, and helps make online booksellers (especially Amazon) more effective on that front. But it can’t replace the accidental nature of browsing a bookstore. My last purchase on Amazon was Adam Kirsch’s THE THOUSAND WELLS; while Amazon could have led me to his other books (poetry and criticism and Disraeli) or other New Formalist-types, the odds of my just wandering the philosophy, history, fiction, etc. shelves is far less — and, I’d say, far less effective (mostly due to sheer volume). And that’s where those wholly unintended bookstore encounters take place, as well (and to argue from personal anecdote, more often).

  3. I think that we need to distinguish two things:

    1. as you rightly illustrate, the joy of discovery through hyper contingent situations – i.e. the book store; and

    2. a somewhat focused foraging that the online experience offers.

    And one might say that there could be a hybrid – an online search of obscure titles/topics/authors through say Abe books.

    Good luck with the blog. I can tell you are someone with a refined and eclectic taste.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: