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Tales of a Book Browsing Experiment

by Kim on November 27, 2012 · 33 comments

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Earlier this month, Aarti (Book Lust) wrote a wonderful post about the forgotten pleasures of browsing for books. I knew this was a post I was going to love by the first two paragraphs alone:

I am not sure when or how it happened, but some time after becoming a book blogger, I stopped being a book browser. I would go to the library and the bookstore and book fairs and Amazon armed with a wish list and look for specific authors and titles that I have been wanting for months. And I would feel so thrilled to get a book that I wanted – it was like a treasure hunt and I was always shocked to find that a book so high up on my wish list was, for some unknown reason, not high up on anyone else’s, and it felt so wonderful to find a book waiting for me like a gift.

But somewhere along the way, I forgot about the pleasure of walking slowly down a library aisle, looking at so many titles of books, pulling one down from the shelf, and deciding that it was one I wanted to take home with me. I forgot about opening up a book I know nothing about and realizing that I can get just as immersed in that one as I can in all those other books that my friends keep telling me to read. I forgot about how calming it can be to go into a bookstore without an agenda, just open to finding something that appeals to you.

Those paragraphs describe me almost exactly. When I was a kid, even into being a teenager, I was a book browser. When I went to the library I had a few “next in a series” books I looked for, but otherwise spent a lot of time just grabbing books that looked interesting off the shelves. I was also an avid used bookstore browser, going into my local Half Price Books to buy many of the $1 and $2 clearance books they had along their back wall. The only time I ever went into a store with a specific book in mind was a visit to say, Barnes & Noble, where it felt like an investment to get a new book for my shelves.

Over almost five years of book blogging, I’ve shifted away from being a book browser. I come across so many good book recommendations online and have developed such a long list of books I want to read, it’s almost impossible to go into a library or bookstore without an agenda of some kind. Or, to just search shelves and pick out something random rather than gravitating towards books I know a little bit about. (And this isn’t just a recent problem… I mourned the loss of serendipitous reading all the way back in January 2011, without much change, it appears).

Last week, I decided to do a little experiment in book browsing to see what I might find. After work, I headed over to my local library to pick up a book I had on hold, then spent some time just wandering around. I browsed the nonfiction sections I typically like — science and nature writing, memoirs, literary criticism, biography — and then just walked through the fiction section, where I expected I’d know fewer books and authors.

And oh my gosh, it was hard! In all my nostalgia for book browsing and random reading, I’d forgotten how difficult it can be to both find interesting books among the many, many books that are available and the open mindedness to give unexpected books a chance. You have to really be willing to work at book browsing, paying attention to titles, pulling out books that seem interesting, and reading summaries and first pages to get a sense of the book, especially if it’s a book you have no prior knowledge of. Clearly the implications of the decision are low stakes (especially at a library, where books are essentially free), but it still took me awhile to put together a pile of random reads:

The other difficult thing, I’ve discovered, is making myself read these random books. I have so many books on my shelves that I bought or requested that I have a clear reason for wanting to read that it is hard to make myself put those aside for the “risk” of a random book. Again, the stakes in this case are supremely low; at worst, I invest a few hours of time into a book I end up dislike (which is a risk of every book, regardless of how many good reviews it has gotten). But it’s their weird mental block that I haven’t been able to get past quite yet.

Since I haven’t actually finished any of the books picked up during my experimental book browse, I can’t report on the results quite yet. But I’m hoping to find some time soon to give these books a chance and see if making book browsing (and choosing books unexpectedly) a priority can bring some surprise into my reading life again.

Photo Credit: Barron Webster via Flickr

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Nikki Steele November 27, 2012 at 9:51 am

I don’t think I was ever a browser. Before blogging and the shockingly long TBR lists, I always had my favorite authors and would search them alphabetically, bypassing every one else.

For me, I’ve found that the least stressful way to get out of my reading comfort zone (and I’m trying!) is to go to my local bookstore and ask one of the employees there to recommend a book. They’ll normally recommend something I’ve never heard before, but it also always turns out really fantastic.

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Kim November 28, 2012 at 5:34 pm

That’s interesting! I think the browsing thing started when I was young and used to pick books based on how thick they were, regardless of topic.

I love your idea to ask bookstore employees for recommendations. I am going to try that next time I get to visit an independent bookstore.

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Shannon November 27, 2012 at 1:03 pm

I am a fair-weather browser… When I used to visit the library (I now download to my ipad), I would browse the new books and such, but rarely the regular shelves. There were always just too many choices! I still browse, though I am often attracted to titles I know are already on my TBR list, but do so online.

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Kim November 28, 2012 at 5:35 pm

There were a lot of choices at the library, and mine is quite small! It was a little overwhelming, actually.

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Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm November 27, 2012 at 2:54 pm

The only time I really browse is for kids’ books – at the library and at used bookstores. I can’t remember the last time I browsed for a book for myself; I might have to try it soon!

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Kim November 28, 2012 at 5:36 pm

I bet it’s fun to browse for kids books (and easy to skim through them if they’ll be fun!).

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Teresa November 27, 2012 at 4:40 pm

I love to browse, and especially at the library because I can take books home and feel to particular guilt if I don’t get around to reading them. I’ll just take them out again when I’m ready or I’ll sample enough to know the book isn’t for me. But that said, I rarely end up with completely unknown-to-me books when I browse. What’s more likely to happen is that I’ll see a book I was already interested in but forgot about.

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Kim November 28, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Now that I read so many blogs and bookish sites, I have the same problem — when I browse, I’m always drawn to books I’ve heard about before. It’s harder to find totally unfamiliar books, which was part of this little book browsing challenge.

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Leah November 27, 2012 at 10:41 pm

I’ve never been a very good browser. When I was younger I frequently read the same beloved books over and over again because I simply could not find anything I wanted to read on the Young Adult shelves at the library and in bookstores. I could spend half an hour pulling books down from the shelves and reading their jackets, but very rarely would something seem interesting enough to merit buying. I’ve always preferred browsing online, where I can read reviews and get recommendations, like on Amazon.

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Kim November 28, 2012 at 5:38 pm

I like browsing online, but it feels less fun that browsing in real life. And it’s hard to replicate the serendipity of a used bookstore online — algorithms just don’t seem to work the same way.

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Annmarie November 27, 2012 at 11:03 pm

I love book browsing, particularly in libraries, used, and indie bookstores. It is probably one of the biggest reasons I have held out on buying an ereader; I would miss my random bookshelf/pile/bin finds.

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Kim November 28, 2012 at 5:38 pm

That’s probably the reason I still don’t use an ereader — too many books, many of which I grabbed randomly at one time or another.

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Jennifer November 28, 2012 at 8:17 am

Those paragraphs could describe me as well. I’ve only been blogging for 6 months or so but I’ve already noticed a huge difference in the way I read/look for books. I kinda miss random reading.

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Kim November 28, 2012 at 5:40 pm

It’s really interesting the way blogging affects reading. I always have a hard time comparing reading now to reading “before” because I’ve been blogging almost as long as I’ve been an adult reader out of college. But I do know blogging makes reading very, very not random.

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Nadia November 28, 2012 at 8:40 am

I used to love book browsing – it was my favorite past time. It seems to me that I did it more often when I was living in England for grad school. I would head to the local Waterstones and charity shops and just go to town searching for new reads. I didn’t care if the author was unknown – if the book looked interesting I would give it a read. That is how I discovered so many of my favorite authors. But now, there isn’t a bookstore nearby to browse in and I tend to just order from Amazon. That’s why I read book blogs – its my version of book browsing and so far its worked (I’ve found loads of new books to read). Thanks for this great post – reminded me of an aspect of my reading life that I haven’t really thought about in quite some time. Cheers!

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Kim November 28, 2012 at 5:42 pm

I don’t have any local bookstores, which also makes browsing a little bit difficult. But, the library works pretty well for browsing once in awhile. Now I just need time to read my random books :)

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jennygirl November 28, 2012 at 1:39 pm

I used to be a big browser at the library. Nothing makes me happier than browsing the library, well except yarn stores.
I don’t even go to the library that often anymore, because of review books and ones I own on my shelves. I’ve really been trying to cut back and read what I have so I can get back to the library. Excellent post and makes me want to go to the library :)

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Kim November 28, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Oooo, yarn stores. Those places are dangerous if you go in to browse!

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Trisha November 28, 2012 at 6:50 pm

I have to admit I am still a book browser. I have no problem buying random books; my problem is actually reading them. I get them home and then they take a back seat to the more bloggish type books.

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Kim December 3, 2012 at 8:26 pm

That’s part of my problem too. I like the idea of random reads, but they don’t really fit into my style of reading much anymore… with so many books I know I want to read, it’s tough to prioritize risk, maybe?

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Laurie C November 28, 2012 at 9:25 pm

I work in a library, so get to do a fair amount of browsing here and there. I bring home piles of books every month, but only read a few of them. :(

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Kim December 3, 2012 at 8:27 pm

That sounds so fun! I’ve contemplated volunteering at my library once a week to force some browsing, but haven’t taken the plunge yet.

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Alex in Leeds November 29, 2012 at 9:36 am

I’m still a browser but I do have this annoying habit of ‘fixing’ my reading plans, where I finish book X and then borrow or buy book Y as it is the best follow up. Not because book Y is the book I most want to read you understand, just because book Y is somehow the neatest solution to the ‘what to read next’ puzzle. It’s a bit OCD but thankfully blogging is helping me break it and be a bit more random in my library selections. :)

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Kim December 3, 2012 at 8:28 pm

I totally get what you mean! I always seem to want to read another book on a topic after I finish the first one. I don’t always follow the impulse, but it does seems to shift around my “what book is next” pile.

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Sara November 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm

I’m a devoted book browser. Some of my favorite books have been surprise finds from the library. A few years ago, I refused to let myself check out books because I had so many I hadn’t yet read. Then, I realized that was stupid, so I gave myself freedom to roam those shelves again, and it wasn’t until your post that I figured something out. My love of reading whatever feels right and not adhering to any set plan is probably why I’m not a very good blogger. I’m hardly ever of-the-moment, and I rarely accept review books because I just want to read whatever comes up.

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Kim December 3, 2012 at 8:29 pm

You know, I think there’s absolutely a place for bloggers who are not reading the latest thing or review copies or whatever. It just takes a little bit more effort to find “your people” and figure out how to have conversations about books that aren’t centered on the here and now and bloggers who have a similar taste in books.

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Jenny December 1, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Hahahaha, this is a wonderful post. When Aarti wrote her post about browsing, I thought about all the drawbacks to book browsing (the reasons I was never much of a book browser), and you have just articulated them here. Now that I have bloggers telling me what to read, I can never ever ever go back. (I basically started blogging so people would tell me what to read.)

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Kim December 3, 2012 at 8:32 pm

There are lots of drawbacks to browsing. It’s risky! And once you get used to having a plan (created by yourself or from recommendations you trust), it’s hard to browse again. I think the trick, for me anyway, will be to find a way of replicating the surprise of browsing in a way that gets me to read my own books :)

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Karen December 2, 2012 at 5:39 am

The demise of my book browsing days has crept up on me unawares. It wasn’t until I read your post that I realised just what has happened since I started blogging a year ago. The only time I seem to browse now is when I’m hanging around in an airport departure lounge (I don’t have my reading wishlists with me on my trips) and I usually end up with something I wouldn’t normally read.

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Kim December 3, 2012 at 8:33 pm

It’s slips away easily, doesn’t it? I love to browse bookstores at airports. They’re always this strange mix of books that I can’t quite pinpoint. I am always tempted to buy too, even if I have several books with me already!

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Karen December 4, 2012 at 1:47 am

I bought an e reader when my habit of taking multiple books on a flight gave me neck ache because of the weight in my shoulder. So now I never have the problem of finding I don’t like the book I have with me.. But I still end up in the bookstore pre flight HBts take a long time to die.

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Katie @ Doing Dewey December 7, 2012 at 11:00 pm

Interesting – I’m actually the opposite. I make a long TBR list but have to work really hard to remember to use it! Just browsing is more my norm :)

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Kim December 9, 2012 at 2:09 pm

That’s cool! As I think about it, I think I miss the serendipity that book browsing creates, not necessarily the act of bowsing itself, if that makes any sense :)

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