January 2, 2007KR BlogUncategorized

The Virtues of Browsing

It’s just below 40 and the temperature outside has begun its evening decline at the same time that a full moon rises over Cambridge, where I’ve been spending much of the holidays. I went, this afternoon, for a coffee with a new friend (and a very fine poet: don’t miss Blue Front ) and spent the rest of the time leisurely exploring bookstores in Harvard and Central squares. It’s a luxury to have a well stocked bookstore, as the residents of Princeton, NJ must be realizing now that it’s a little too late and one of the last bastions of independent commerce, Micawber Books, has announced it will close its doors. So, I’ve been thinking about the importance of browsing.There’s nothing more useful than a well-stocked bookstore. One needs a book and one finds it on the shelf: desire fulfilled (a rarity indeed). There’s nothing wrong with a little gratification, and such convenience is particularly useful during the holidays. But the real treasure of such places is the creation of a space in which the mind can wander. Whether one buys or not, the mind is drawn from one subject to the next with a fluidity that defies the classification of books in distinct categories. Why not suddenly develop an intense (if brief) interest in etymology if the right title presents itself? And why not skim from title to title as if they were fragmentary words on an ancient scroll or in one of Pound’s Cantos? Nothing depresses me more than the ever-slendering inventories of the bookstores that do survive or the ones that survive by selling everything but (or everything and a few) books.
For all that I’ve extolled the pleasures of browsing here, bookselling is equally under assault. Twenty or so years ago, Cambridge, MA used to have the most bookstores per square–or so people said. Now, a bare handful linger–Harvard Coop, Harvard Bookstore, Grolier Poetry Bookshop (one of perhaps two all poetry bookstores left in the country). A couple used bookstores survive (Raven Books and Rodney’s are enjoyable stops, the former has an especially nice poetry section). And let’s not forget Schoenhof’s wonderful stock of books in languages other than English.
Micawber Book’s owner, Logan Fox, blames so much of the demise of bookstores on the desire for rapidity and convenience. He is, in part, right. But before we drag Amazon.com off to burn at the stake, we should admit that it (and other) online book services offer us the opportunity to get our hands on a greater range of new and used books than ever before. And of course, we can always patronize independent stores, most of which now have online ordering. But so far, I have yet to see an online interface that offers me the deliriously unpredictable experience of being with an array of books in a small space that may, indeed, cramp the body but will, more importantly, stretch the mind.