Wednesday, April 25, 2007


For every action there is a reaction. The recent article in the Times about the supposed negative effects of internet bookselling on the art of the browse can be seen as one journalist's attempt to get a reaction. At least it makes us think about the issue. Margaret Atwood's and Kazuo Ishiguro's remarks may have been used by the journalist to point the brick wall he was building, but I think the wall is only knee high and we can safely sit on it and see both ways. Margaret Atwood and Ishiguro are of a certain age, and like many of their age, myself included, they spent their formative years in open stack libraries and a selection of bookshops both retail and second-hand. I use the internet and it is a very useful tool like Ishiguro mentions, but I too, like Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, have been conditioned over the many years by the browsing in bookshops and libraries. The utter reality of it: the sunlight coming through the window; the smell of the books; the excitement and pleasure upon finding what one was looking for and for the chance discovery of something utterly new; the bookseller's friendly banter; the cat sleeping in the sunny window; the sound of the door closing and opening; the feel of that little step down into the shop; the chance meeting with a friend; the old chair next to the heating stove; the sense of comfort and well-being as rain taps against the window and one has no umbrella; the light upon the gilt titles and colourful softcovers; the feel of the binding and the sound of the paper as each page is turned. . . Endless memories come back to me of experiences in bookshops over the past close to 40 years. This is what cannot be replicated on-line. There is something unique about reality.

Although the internet has indeed brought about all sorts changes and adjustments in the bookselling world, I agree with Michael Gove's response in the Times that it is "the spread of bookselling by the major grocers that has caused real problems for the margins of smaller bookshops." His article is quite humourous and he is obviously an ardent bibliophile.

I came across an article only yesterday quite inadvertently on a library database (yes the internet does have its serendipity but of a different kind) written for The Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas H. Benton titled Stacks Appeal. It is his lovely paean to open stack libraries and the art of the browse. Very well said and humourous. Yes, browsing in reality is different. And may we always have it.

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