My local independent bookstore was shuttered, but my local Goodwill was open. So, mask on, I went in, reviving for a moment a familiar routine. A Goodwill isn’t my preferred browsing experience, but sometimes there were decent finds amid the dross of donations, and at this point any shelf of books besides my own would be a balm: programming manuals, Mormon doctrine, math textbooks, dog-eared classics, stacks of Tom Clancy and Stephen King. Yes, please, fine. There wasn’t a single book on the shelf that I felt like buying that time around, and few I felt like touching. But the opportunity to look felt like plenty.
The covid-Zoom era has made bookshelf snoops of all of us. Late-night host Seth Meyers has reshuffled stacks of books on the endtable in his attic where he’s now taping his show, treating his copy of Colleen McCullough’s novel “The Thorn Birds” like it’s a discount Ed McMahon. (A Goodreads list is keeping track of his selections.) Celebrities and experts compelled to conduct interviews from home have been committing naked acts of performative shelving, putting on their best intellectual face for the webcams, inspiring plenty of speculation about the speakers’ inner lives — or at least a few rounds of “Spot ‘The Power Broker’.”
But squinting at strangers’ bookcases is only so satisfying, and as weeks in quarantine have dragged on, I’ve wanted a browsing experience that’s more promiscuously bookish. For a dedicated reader like myself, it’s a serious loss: Shuttered bookstores are a reminder of how much of our reading lives is a process of discovery, and how online retailers’ attempts to re-create the discovery experience tend to be huge letdowns. Algorithms can tell you what you like based on what you’ve said you liked before. They can also make a few guesses at what you might like based on what other people say they like that’s related to what you’ve said you like. But they can’t introduce you to the thing you might like for the first time, all for yourself.
The story of being a reader is often a story of being surprised in a bookstore. It’s where Zeno first heard of Socrates, and where Nietzsche learned of Schopenhauer. In 1916, the critic Carl Van Doren was in a used bookstore when he spotted Herman Melville’s forgotten 1851 novel, “Moby-Dick,” a happy accident that resurrected what’s now recognized as one of America’s greatest novels. Many of the books I love most and recommend most fervently were books I stumbled upon. I didn’t realize I needed a smirking handbook to the American class system until I spotted Paul Fussell’s “Class,” didn’t know how satisfying the Western could be till I spied “Lonesome Dove,” didn’t know James Baldwin till I found a cheap paperback of “Giovanni’s Room.” We find our favorite books in the same way we often find our closest friends, brought together by circumstances that are unexpected but somehow true to our personalities.
Algorithms miss all that; Netflix and Amazon tend to promote what’s new at the expense of what’s available, and what’s available feels small and manipulative. And with algorithms, you can’t quite shake the unsettling feeling that your consumption habits are being watched. Because, of course, they are. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Bookstores have their limitations, too, of course. Every inch of shelf space needs to make money, especially these days, so any responsible shop will stuff its front tables and endcaps with hot new titles and reliable sellers. But any place selling books, whether it’s a messy Goodwill or a well-curated antiquarian store, recognizes that the surprise and randomness within a vast array of options are part of the appeal. We want to look, and we want to look at a lot.
I confess it took the novel coronavirus to clue me in to the fact that passionate YA and genre readers have been on top of this feeling for years. Type “bookshelf tour” into YouTube and you’ll discover an abundance of booktubers enthusing over their collections, guiding viewers through their shelves with stories about how they acquired a particular rare title or signed copy, or just bragging about their organizational schemes. Some of these videos run 60 minutes or more (“AN HOUR WORTH OF BRITTANY AND HER SHELVES? YES!”); many of them have hundreds of thousands of views. Many thoughts about Ikea are shared; misordered titles trigger OCD in the comments.
More recently, because of stay-at-home orders, authors have been getting into the act. Last month, Simon & Schuster began posting videos of its authors conducting bookshelf tours while plugging their favorite local indie stores. Cassandra Clare’s book barn — a book barn! — includes a signed first edition of “Catch-22” and vintage copies of the Strand magazine, where Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories first appeared. Mitchell Jackson, author of “Survival Math,” shared some of his favorite works of African American literature, drawn from what looks like a precarious vertical stack but is actually a clever shelving system. Never let it be said that the bookshelf tour video lacks drama.
No doubt cabin fever is having its way with me, but watching these videos I find myself thinking: “Zoom in!” “Pan across the shelves!” “Slower!” Bookstores in lockdown would have at least one dedicated viewer if they produced videos of nothing but their shelves, tracking them closely, focusing on the spines. It would be a sort of white noise machine for the eyes — a way to scope out what’s available, to see what books are, to spark a little of that feeling of surprise yet again.
For now, the abundant online bookshelf tours will have to suffice. Watch a few of them on YouTube, and YouTube pushes more of them to you. And for once, the algorithm seems to actually know what it’s doing.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”