Chris Else discovers online shopping is no match for the bookshop browse.
There are books bought and books borrowed; books stolen and books found; books that are gifts and books that are prizes; books that you read as soon as they are in your hands and books that sit on your shelves for 20 years before you even think of opening them. Like all of life’s important experiences, books come to us as much by accident as by design. The happy felicities of chance give the adventure of reading one of its special satisfactions.
About 18 months ago I made my first foray into the world of electronic reading. I bought an iPad. My first reaction was delight at all the classics I could download for little or no cost. I reread Tristram Shandy, Wuthering Heights, Bleak House, The Importance of Being Earnest,and Amazon, forever helpful, suggested other titles: Jane Eyre, Hard Times, An Ideal Husband. And did I know I could buy the complete works of Jane Austen for $9.99? Eventually, though, the cut-price classics began to pall. I needed something lighter.
Friends had been praising Lee Child for a while, and someone told me he had written the last in his series about Jack Reacher. Maybe it was time I had a look. I bought and downloaded The Killing Floor. I liked it and so I bought another and a third. By now, Amazon had me sussed and was confidently offering me further titles: Middlemarch, Our Mutual Friend and books by Jeffrey Archer, James Patterson and David Baldacci. Nice try but I was over thrillers, too, for the time being.
What I wanted, I decided, was a good, intellectually challenging biography, something like Ray Monk’s brilliant Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius,although I wasn’t really sure that I wanted a philosopher or a scientist. Off I went to the Kindle store and typed “biography” into the search engine.
Result? Something over 50,000 hits. Top of the list were people like Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, plus a holocaust survivor, a child abuse victim and the autobiography of a prairie girl. I was offered some links to general listings, though: Memoirs, Historical Biographies, Rich and Famous People, Ethnic and National Biographies, Leaders and Notable People, and Professional and Academic Biographies. None of these looked hopeful but I tried a couple. Each resulted in a thousand or so hits and offered me books about growing up Amish, coaching Tiger Woods, and America’s greatest every sniper.
Despite my earlier reservations, I tried searching on Biography Science and Biography Philosophy. The first turned up Einstein and Feynman (two biographies each) and Tesla (one). The second had no one I would call a philosopher except Rousseau, and included someone who seemed to be a basketball coach.
I was stuck. Three separate searches and a dozen or more pages of thumbnail covers had offered nothing that gave off more than a whiff of interest. Most of the titles were so far off the mark that I felt the task was nigh on impossible. I gave up and started reading Robert Louis Stevenson, keenly aware of the irony that my fruitless searches had been conducted using a thing called “a browser”.
A few weeks later, I was in Unity Books, Wellington, armed with a bunch of book tokens. Within five minutes, I found exactly the book I had been looking for: Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes/Hayek – The Clash that Defined Modern Economics. This, of course, was available on Kindle and, at US$14.84, would have saved me NZ$10 to NZ$15. If I could have found it.
One point to note here is that my story would have been no different if I had been looking for a hard copy book rather than an ebook. Ebooks do raise some important matters: the level of economic return to authors and publishers; the costs of producing two editions of one title for the same sized market; and the viability of bookshops when half the potential sales are being siphoned off into digital downloads. However, these matters are relatively easy to grasp and, therefore, to deal with compared to the impact of modern technology on the wider business of reading in general.
To restate the obvious, then, the internet is very good for acquiring books when you are clear about what you want. It probably works quite well, too, if you have no idea and are open to anything at all. When, however, you have a vague notion of what you are looking for, it becomes much less effective. This is because you cannot approach it with a mind that is both reflective and active, the mind of a browser.
Before the technophiles start to clamour for my blood, I had better explain what I mean by that last sentence.
The terms extrovert and introvert were popularised, if not invented, by Carl Jung. Jung’s psychology suggested that people lived on a spectrum with, at one end, a tendency to draw psychic energy from the world outside themselves – extroversion – and, at the other, an opposite tendency to draw energy from their own subconscious, and inner resources – introversion.
It seems to me that in these terms, and contrary to the judgements of legions of parents exhorting their children to get off the computer and go and do something, the internet, in general, and social media, in particular, constitute an extroverted medium. Nothing happens there unless you do something but if you get going and interact with it, you receive a constant flow of incoming stimulation, which encourages immediate, spontaneous and impulsive response.
The result is a kind of endless party – the extovert’s perfect environment – with constant, free-flowing chatter about every subject under the sun from recipes for pumpkin soup, to the cost of cars and to someone’s plans for redecorating their spare room. As a booklover, you might find a group of kindred spirits in all this – people who want to talk about the books they are reading and the books they have loved or hated – and this will no doubt stimulate you and encourage you to keep up with the latest trends.
If it leaves you dissatisfied, though, I wouldn’t be surprised. This is not a browser’s world.
Browsing is hard to categorise in terms of Jung’s spectrum. It looks outward but it also opens up the channel into the subconscious from which the introvert draws stimulation. Thus, despite being a mundane activity, it has what I can only call a spiritual aspect. It is like taking yourself out into a garden and quietly sitting and absorbing the sights and sounds and scents around you, now and then slipping into your own thoughts before moving out again to notice something in particular – a flower or an insect or a patch of light. That match between the outside and the inside is a moment for potential growth. This is what I mean by a mind that is both receptive and active.
In such a state, I don’t want to be told what to look at, although I might see something and remember that someone else talked about it and interested me in it. Still less do I want Amazon’s helpful recommendations based on my past interests. I want something new because, in a sense, I want to be renewed. I don’t know what I’m looking for because I don’t know what I need but I will recognise it when I see it and that moment of recognition will be a step forward into a new world.
Of course, the quality of the browsing experience depends on the quality of the garden. It is not enough to have a lot of stuff. There must be design and selection and maintenance and, arguably, a certain subtle pride in the achievement. At the moment, the internet offers none of this. The only place it can be found is a personal library or a good bookshop. The technophiles will tell you that the next generation of the web (4.0 when “technology and human become one”) will offer precisely these experiences. I guess we’ll see.