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?

“…more gravel than pearls…”

Despite the evident reluctance to embrace new technology my last post might suggest, I’m cautiously optimistic about Oyster‘s attempt to build a Netflix for books.

I currently consume about twenty percent of my reading material electronically on an iPad, and I’m relatively comfortable with the medium. I found long stretches of reading a little unpleasant at first, but I’ve gotten over that challenge—largely because of using the iPad for business travel. Now that I’m acclimated, I almost enjoy my little screen as much as a book—almost.

For me, the decision of whether or not to buy a book electronically involves an instinctive (read: half-assed) calculus based on the following questions:

  1. Will I need to travel soon? (If yes, how small is a cheap paperback of said book?)
  2. How readily available is a cheap paperback?
  3. Did it just come out and can I not wait for a cheap used paperback?
  4. Does the method of printing & production greatly enhance the aesthetic experience of reading said book?

The intrinsic aesthetic value of the book still factors into my decision-making more often than you might expect, but not as often with novels per se. Novels I usually just want to read in the most accessible and convenient method available to me, which is often a cheap, used paperback I’ve acquired, or been loaned by a friend. There are certainly exceptions—lavishly illustrated volumes or signed copies or gifts—but they’re definitely exceptions. I have a small collection of signed first editions, but I didn’t really buy them as reading copies.

Cookbooks and art books, though, I almost always prefer a printed copy. I’m a sucker for fancy paper, glossy photos and intricate illustration. I have favourite fonts.*

So, based on this highly subjective “process,” the ebooks I pay money for are often recent novels I’m eager to read. Most of the China Miéville I’ve read—which is everything but his dissertation and latest YA—I purchased electronically the day it came out or soon after.

I also read a lot of free classics on my iPad; the most recent being The Metamorphosis by Kafka. And here we get to my one big concern with a monthly subscription to Oyster: there are a lot of free ebooks out there.

I love Netflix, but that’s because there is a lot of content on Netflix (Canada) that’s to my taste—television shows I never got to see before, obscure or weird movies, British stuff—but I have friends who dropped it after a month because the content wasn’t fresh enough for them (particularly the Canadian version of Netflix can be a little lean on new releases.) It helps to have a taste for B-movies, for example. What I don’t need from Netflix is every episode of Star Trek, because every version already airs endlessly on other channels.

What I don’t need for a monthly subscription from Oyster is classics I can find for free via multiple other channels. When I see, in sample images on the Oyster blog, the latest volume of Best American Short Stories, I’m intrigued. When I see Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London—a book I love dearly—I am less impressed.

——
*Futura (Kubrick’s favourite font) and Garamond especially.

“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future”

Trinity College Library, Dublin, Ireland

When I read about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.
–Isaac Asimov

It’s hard for me not to have a negative reaction to the news that a “bookless library” has opened in San Antonio. Despite being something of a technophile, I have trouble reconciling the almost Platonic imagery in my head of endless rows and towers of leather and paper with a room full of screens.

I own an iPad, iPhone, desktop PC, PlayStation, Wii and two DVRs and should therefore be able to applaud the creativity of an underfunded public institution dealing with massive change. I should, but can’t quite manage to leap the emotional divide that exists for me between a cybercafé and a library.

Library is a word with resonance. Alexandria has a library. Niagara Falls has a cybercafé.

I grudgingly admire the attempt to create an enticing, physical, public space in the digital age, but it seems a little forced to organize that space around what are largely virtual tools. Wouldn’t this have been a better story if it had been about a library finding a creative way to reengage the public with the traditional forms of books? New gadgets hold a fascination for me personally, but the book has been a surprisingly resilient and adaptable technology since the 15th Century.

Paper books are still a thriving industry too. Just three of the top publishers in the world, Random House, Penguin Group and Simon & Schuster, have earned a combined revenue of over $2.8 billion in 2o13—digital sales still represent less than 25% of total sales at all three of these companies.

And you know what’s a cheap way for people to read who can’t afford gadgets? Books. Penguin Books—with their iconic and often beautiful covers—was founded on the idea of making literature accessible and easy for the common man.

Maybe I’m destined to become some kind of crank, rocking on a porch somewhere, moaning about the decline of civilization since the loss of the book, but I think there’s still an inherent value in the book as a physical object and in the printed word in general.

I would prefer to see contemporary libraries find a balanced point between free digital access (a worthy offering) and a collection—even a modest one—of real books. To reject printed books as completely as this library in San Antonio has done, smacks of a marketing ploy.