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In Defense of Browsing

Like any groveling author, I am seeking a casual way to insert into this post the news that my new novel, The Lost Daughter, is out this week from Berkley Books. There. That was subtle, right?

Actually, the subtle thing would have been to mention the besieged bookseller, Barnes & Noble. B&N? Surely I jest. But no—since swallowing up most of our favorite independent bookstores and witnessing the demise of its rival, Borders, B&N is the last brick-and-mortar bulwark against the ravenous Amazon and the cultural forces demolishing our literary life.

It feels weird, as both an author and a reader, to be cheering Barnes & Noble. When I walk into my local branch store, I expect no one at any of the counters to know anything about the books they’re selling, and I’m generally right. In keeping with the corporate office’s latest attempt to ramp up sales, toys and games have spread over the floor space, pushing real books to the side. Most customers seem either to be snoozing in one of the coveted armchairs or meeting a Match.com date for coffee. So what, really, is great about this place? Why not just cave to Amazon’s bullying market tactics and buy online?

My one-word answer: browsing. For readers who seek a new history of the Civil War or another biography of Steve Jobs, browsing may seem a waste of time. But when you write and read fiction or poetry, you aren’t necessarily seeking a subject, but looking to inhabit a world—the kind of world that may change yours from that moment onward. Word of mouth may send you to that world, as may reviews. But nothing quite beats the experience of hovering, mothlike, around the literature section, picking up and glancing at pages randomly, deciding to try a book because you like its cover or its opening lines or what Wally Lamb had to say about it.

This experience of browsing seems to be threatened, not just in the bookstore, but in the debate over language education. Take former Harvard president Larry Summers’s argument last month in The New York Times that, for American students, learning a foreign language may not be so important because “it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East.” Even though Summers’s suggestion was a tiny part of a much larger argument, it fomented a “Room for Debate” forum in which all the discussants defended foreign-language learning—not because such learning serves a specific business or public-policy purpose, but because, as Anthony Jackson of the Asia Society put it, language “is the palette from which we draw all the colors of our life.”

It’s that palette that remains, in a different way and even in its corporatized, sanitized form, at B&N’s beleaguered brick-and-mortar stores. So for the sake of browsing, for the sake of language, for the palette with its colors however watered down, let’s go through the doors to find our books. And if you happen to see—oh, never mind. Self-promotion and subtlety just don’t make a good fit.

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