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:
- Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen (fiction)
- A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman by Margaret Drabble (short stories)
- Waking Up in Eden by Lucinda Fleeson (nonfiction)
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.