In The Hand

     |    Wednesday January 23rd, 2013

I just finished reading a wonderful book, The One, by R.J. Smith"", whom I’ve known since he was a young whippersnapper in New York writing for the Village Voice. Although there’s a Kindle edition, and, presumably, other e-book editions, and although the pictures in the book are hardly crucial, so it makes sense to buy an electronic edition if you want, I got a paperback. There were two good reasons for this. First, I may be writing some stuff later this year where some of the information in Smith’s book would be of use, and I need to lay hands on it as quickly as possible, and two, it was there.

“There” was the American Book Center in Amsterdam, as fatal a place for any pocket change of mine as has ever existed. I had just walked into the shop, wandered into the music section to see what was new, and there it was, reminding me that I’d been wanting to read it, and that when I’d placed my last order with amazon.fr, it hadn’t been in their catalog. Why not? Good question. In some cases it has to do with copyright problems, or the book being published by another company. Amazon is usually really good about charging you an arm and a leg to order the book from the American wing of the company and then shipping it to you. (Yesterday, I found one of the books on my want-list at just under double what I could have gotten it for from Amazon if I lived in the States.) But the point is, I walked in, the book said “Hi, Ed,” and it was mine. (Later in that same frenzy, I at long last got David Thompson’s definitive treatise/cookbook on Thai cuisine ""and a science-fiction book I’m still kicking myself for buying because that’s exactly the sort of thing I use my Kindle software on the iPad for).

I was thinking about this yesterday, when I realized I’d replied to an e-mail from a friend without mentioning her kind offer to order stuff from Amazon for me and repackage and mail it to me so I could save some dough. The reason, I realized, was that I had drawn a blank. What did I want? Well, clearly there are books I want, and clearly amazon.fr isn’t going to have all of them. But then, this is the big problem I have with Amazon in the first place: when I know exactly what I want, it’s easy enough to find it (or not). But Amazon is not a place for browsers. In fact, it might be a good idea to remind people what that word meant before there was Netscape et. al.

Browsing was what you (or what I) did in bookstores. It’s what I still do in bookstores, which is why there’s such a catastrophic mess in my apartment due to it not being big enough to house all the books I brought from my last apartment. Browsing, you’d enter a space, look around, and hope something called to you. Or you’d have a general idea what you wanted — a French cookbook, say — and you’d browse the French cookbooks to see which one was closest to the sort of thing you were looking for. Which is not to say that a French cookbook with an entirely different slant might not also engage your attention, or, as you made your way to the checkout, a new novel by a favorite author or a non-fiction book on some totally unrelated subject wouldn’t materialize before you and render you helpless. The term “browser” as applied to the thing I’m using to type this and you’re using to read it dates to the ancient past, when it was a means by which to access and scoot around the WWW, which, in those days, was so small that the University of Indiana’s music department actually maintained a page of links to music-related sites — there were at least 2500 of them! — and when I was bored I’d go browse that page and find websites devoted to jazz and old-time Appalachian string-band music and the evolution of harpsichord technology. There was no way to bookmark the pages, so I’d either write down the URL or remember that it was on the Indiana page.

These remarkable discoveries aren’t possible with digital technology, or if they are, I don’t see how they work. The digital world is great if you know just what you don’t have or don’t know: go to Wikipedia or a given e-commerce site and look it up or order it. But if you don’t know you want it or don’t know that you need to know it, there’s no way that browsing’s going to find it for you. And I’m not sure that there’s any way to fix that, although you can be sure there are some algorithm-wranglers out there trying to figure it out. As with the e-books they’re so readily pushing, the Amazons of the world aren’t so great about understanding what we do on their sites: I’m still getting the occasional reminder from them about multi-thousand-dollar espresso machines because a friend of mine had written “I need a new espresso machine because mine’s on its last legs, but I don’t think I’ll get one of these.” Naturally, to get the point, I clicked. (The another annoying thing they do is to see activity and try to sell you stuff based on that activity without checking out if the activity ended in a sale: thanks, if I spent $400 on a digital camera last week. I don’t think I’ll be doing it again this week).

Browsing isn’t solely limited to commercial transactions (or the related instance of grabbing a book at the library). The juxtaposition of things in a near-random order can have surprising results. The classic example to me is a newspaper: when I buy a physical newspaper, I wind up reading stories — or at least starting them — that I probably would never have seen. Every day I read the New York Times on my iPad, but because that app segregates items into a dozen or so categories, some of which, like sports, I’ve never clicked on, I miss stories that I’d see in the paper edition. The Times puts significant stories from all of its other sections in the first section, as just plain “news,” and that’s where I’d see them. There’s also another aspect to it. Many years ago, I shared an apartment with a guy who had much more of a sense of news than I did, and I remember him reading the San Francisco Chronicle one day and remarking that a story he’d found buried in the middle of the first section seemed a lot more important than the paper seemed to think it was: a burglary at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington. It wasn’t on the television or radio news, nor was it on the first page. But it was there, and he saw it. When I saw people start to talk about how, in the future, your paper would arrive with just the stories you wanted to read in it (by fax), I prayed they’d offer an opt-out on that.

I’ve said it many times, and a lot of those times were here: the day of the physical object is not over. Looking things up on e-books is, at the moment, a huge pain in the ass. I’ll be able to pick up my copy of Smith’s book, find my information or quote, and be back to work in half the time I’d be able to do it on the Kindle. Daily newspapers are becoming more and more of a luxury, but from time to time I pick one up just because of the randomness factor. And the market for physical objects containing music will never go away, either. Just last week I finally found a copy of Jordi Savall’s The Forgotten Kingdom"", a 3-CD history of the part of France in which I live, focusing on the crusade against the Albigensian Heresy, which sounds horribly dull until you read a bit about it in the 560-page book the CDs come bound in.

Savall has made several of these book-CD collections (all found on his Alia Vox label), and they’re an example, admittedly extreme, of the way listeners can learn more about what they’re listening to. Hell, half of what I know about music I learned from liner notes just like these. And with the hybrid CD/SACD sound, it’s leagues above MP3s.

Nope, browsing isn’t just for cybernauts. It’s an essential human need, at least among intellectually curious humans. And, as much as the neophiliacs would like it otherwise, physical objects as containers for information are still, and probably always will be, part of that experience.

EdWard