Bookstore Browsing and Chaos Theory

Charles Stross—the exceptional writer of Accelerando* among other great books—has posted a piece on how readers will discover books in the future, which I believe is both completely accurate and deeply chilling:

“In the future, readers will not go in search of books to read. Feral books will stalk readers, sneak into their ebook libraries, and leap out to ambush them. Readers will have to beat books off with a baseball bat; hold them at bay with a flaming torch: refuse to interact: and in extreme cases, feign dyslexia, blindness or locked-in syndrome to avoid being subjected to literature.”

It’s a polemic about the inevitability of virulent bookspam entering our e-readers.

“Books are going to be like cockroaches, hiding and breeding in dark corners and keeping you awake at night with their chittering.”

In general I’m not afraid ebooks and their attendant marketing because I am neither a Luddite nor paranoid about Minority Report-style** targeted marketing; but I am hesitant about our ebook-dominated near-future. Something essential in my life as a book lover will be lost when I can no longer browse an interesting shelf in a well appointed store.

In a post on book buying, Rod Dreher of the American Conservative notes in an offhanded manner that browsing in big-box book stores isn’t fun anymore because e-readers:

“…solve the “problem” of that Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store. When we were in Paris last month, Julie and I took so much pleasure in the gorgeous small bookstores—all independently owned—all over the Left Bank. If either of us read French well enough, we easily could have lost hours, just browsing. You don’t have that experience often in American bookstores anymore. It used to be fun to browse in record stores too. Times change.”

Mr. Dreher, rightly, bemoans the lack of depth in the stock of big-box bookstores, but fails to see the small independent bookstore as a valid alternative. Many have written about the long tail approach to retail—selling a higher volume of unique items over time rather than, say, a box full of one bestseller the week it comes out—a mode of retail that is largely seen as an online option. But doesn’t that description apply to some of the better, especially used, bookstores you’ve visited?

The most successful independent bookstores that still exist have combined both bricks and mortar and online operations—thriving off both the long tail online and the personal service that many punters still appreciate: a good chat about books followed by some recommendations. But what the bricks and mortar bookstore offers that surpasses even the best online experience is physical browsing.

Amazon-style automated recommendations have arisen to try and simulate the real-world experience of stumbling on something new while browsing, by bombarding us with suggested purchases. The problem with these systems is the rudimentary nature of the AI involved. I frequently buy gifts through Amazon, or order for friends and family. For example, I’ve ordered a large number of craft books for my lovely wife. So the amazon bookshelf assembled just for me contains a surprising number of books on Estonian needle-craft. Not only do these suggestions not interest me, but my wife isn’t Estonian and to my knowledge has never asked me to order a book related to Estonian heritage.

The only way to improve the Amazon system is to continually click “not interested” as you browse their recommendations in order to affect the overall results. But the minute I order another knitting book for my wife, I will screw with the algorithms again.

But here’s the more important factor that online systems can’t even come close to emulating: the chaos of browsing.

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
—Albert Einstein

The recommendations of online systems are based on the statistical likelihood that you, the buyer, will be enticed to buy something else based on trends in your past purchases. In the words of Michael Crichton’s characters in Jurassic Park:

“They believed that prediction was just a function of keeping track of things. If you knew enough, you could predict anything. That’s been cherished scientific belief since Newton.’

And?’

Chaos theory throws it right out the window.”

Browsing a good bookstore is like visiting an art gallery where everything is for sale—a curated experience that is then randomized by alphabetical shelving. Chaos enters the experience through the shelving of unlike works next to each other under broad categories.

A certain frission occurs for the book lover when she glances away from the body of work of a familiar author to light upon the spine of something new—drawn by the title, or a vague familiarity with the author’s name, or even the colour and texture of the binding.

This is a feeling I have treasured all my life and however much I like my iPad—and I love the damn thing—or however much I like browsing random pictures and snippets of text on various websites—nothing I’ve experienced online comes close.

Booksellers have complained of “showrooming” for online book sales and have even considered charging for admission to their stores as a way of solving the dilemma of browsers who leave their stores to buy the same item online. This is, of course, patently ridiculous. A long time local Ottawa book dealer once told me a story about a customer who wandered into the back of the store, found a quiet corner to take off all their clothes, then proceeded to the front of the shop and climbed into the window display; where he sat quietly until the police came. “Showrooming” is the least of your worries as a shop owner.

The only avenue open to independent bookstores to close deals is to provide a better experience through personal service or superior selection of stock—it’s not volume, it’s quality.

And a shop that provides a high-quality browsing experience—cleanliness***, organization, good lighting, peaceful atmosphere, interesting stock—will encourage the spread of chaos.

——
*Seriously, why are you not reading this book immediately? I’m looking at you…
**Though I do blame Minority Report, in part, for all the streaky fingerprints littering the screens of the key electronic interfaces in my life…and for freakin’ Windows 8.
***As book lovers we all have stories about dirty, disorganized, dingy shops that we’ve found hidden treasures in, but do you really prefer that kind of store or would you rather leave with a good book and not the urge to wash your hands?

About andrew

Andrew James Cornell reads, writes, sometimes sells books and cooks. He spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the differences between types of dashes. He will also lecture anyone who stands still on the importance of Dune (the book), 2001 (the movie), about how under-appreciated Paul Bowles and Italo Calvino are, and the correct way to make an Old Fashioned cocktail.
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