Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Lost Art of Browsing

It was a rainy Tuesday night, the kind of evening that invites you to the couch with a book serenaded by the pitter and patter of raindrops.  After a long and satisfying day’s work, what could be more pleasurable than settling into someone else’s story and letting the imagination roam? I was ready for it all, except for one minor problem— I had just finished a book and my night-table was empty. So out I went in the harsh weather to Green Apple bookstore to see what I could find,

And though not exactly my couch, the aisles of the bookstore were inviting and it struck me that here I was again, where I have been so often before nearly my whole adult life—browsing through the stacks watching and listening for what was calling to me. How many hours I’ve spent thumbing through books and flipping through records/CD’s, not knowing what I was looking for, but knowing that something was waiting for me. Sometimes it was a false alarm, but I came to trust that process of looking and listening for what I needed at the moment. Many times I had the sensation that I was bringing home something that was necessary to my future, even if it took 15 years—as it sometimes did—to have its moment.

Such adventure in the looking, whole worlds hiding behind two covers or inside a record sleeve, waiting patiently for you to traverse them. I’ve never been into fishing, but I imagine the process is similar— hook your bait, cast your line and wait patiently for a nibble, grateful and surprised by whatever you reel up. And just as half of fishing is simply being outside at the lake or stream, so did I so thoroughly enjoy the walk to the neighborhood and the small bookstores/record stores with such character and sometimes characters as well. (If you’re from San Francisco, you may remember the 9th Avenue bookstore, Cover to Cover, a Clean-Well Lighted Place or Aquarius Records, The Magic Flute, Streelight Records, Tower Records, all relics from an almost by-gone era. But hooray for Green Apple, City Lights, the Booksmith that have survived the blitz and Amoeba Records, almost the last of its kind left standing.)

Then that moment of returning with your treasures, putting on the record or CD or settling down with your new book. Finding a place for it on the shelf and admiring your growing collection, a testimony to all the selves you've built through your choices. For there is no question that each new book, each new recording, “unlocks a faculty of Soul,” as Coleridge once sort of remarked. We are what we read, what we listen to, are shaped by those sounds in the air and words on a page. The word “story” is related to storehouse and indeed, each new poem, story, essay, adds to our storehouse of images and experiences and insights and shapes the way we think and feel. Music as well creates a storehouse of emotion captured in sound and the wider the listening, the more nuanced our feeling life. If invited into someone’s home, one way I get a feeling for them is to look at their books and record collection. Or at least that’s the way it used to be.

Now we’re in the digital age, where so much is just floating out in some nebulous cyberspace, captured briefly on the Kindle or downloaded from i-Tunes. We all know what’s gained in terms of speed, convenience, storage, etc., but from this old guy’s perspective, much is lost. A record, CD, book, is an artifact capturing a universal and timeless artistic impulse in a particular time and space. We know in our bones the difference between The Freewheeling Bob Dylan and Blonde on Blonde, between Revolver and Seargant Pepper, between On the Road and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Back Country and Turtle Island.  Each had a distinct and connected character that was lost in the Greatest Hits compilation, each song in its slot as if it could only be played before this song and after that one, or this poem only placed before this and after that. Now the whole show is a floating nebulae with everything mixed together. Such a pleasure to hold the record/ CD in your hand and read the liner notes, to feel the pages of the book and the weight (all weighs the same on the Kindle), to identify it as a whole being with heft and smell and identifying artwork and—well, character. Not the same as the scrolled words on the Kindle or tune-list on the computer. And how you come to get it, that art of setting off into the neighborhoods, entering the store, conversing with folks and noticing the others looking for their piece of adventure, in short, that art of browsing, is also lost to those under 25 years old.

What Kindle and I-Tunes and Amazon and the whole culture of instant access, speed and convenience are missing is that the journey is as important as the destination. Or rather an indelible part of the destination, the living the whole life, the difference between growing some of the vegetables, tending them, picking them, shopping at a Farmer’s market for the rest, chopping it all by hand, stirring, salting, tasting, tossing, setting the table, ladling into bowls and arranging on plates and lighting the candles and then sitting down for the meal, the difference between the pleasure of each step of preparation and anticipation and getting take-out or TV dinners and eating from cartons watching TV. We all have times when we need the latter and even enjoy the contrast, but the art of eating is in the whole deal.

Well, who knows? Perhaps books will survive after all and records come back and we’ll meet each other browsing in the stacks. Meanwhile, I found what promises to be a great book and the couch awaits me.  

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