e-Browsing

One of the loyal readers of this column noted recently, with a ripple of contempt, that the eBook cannot compare with its analog original. He is a bookstore browser: he likes to go in and find what he wants, but also to look around at the books grouped with it. In fact, he’s been known to walk into bookstores and say, “What’ve ya got that’s good by authors whose last names start with M?” Digital booklists take that away from him, and take away as well the joy of finding something great that he never suspected was waiting for him.

There are ways around that, of course. Those online lists can be prepared in many ways, and the subject sorting is something that is easily done: you just attach subject tags to the books which can be called up, allowing for as close a simulation of walking along a bookcase in a bookstore as is possible.

Speaking as someone with a bit of experience in sorting books, I’d have to be wary about that. How do they assign subjects to the books? If they take the recommendation of the publishers, who often stick a subject classification in the upper left corner of the back cover, they’re in trouble. Not all publishers use the same lists, nor is a publisher going to be terribly objective about the process. A subject the publisher knows is a good seller will be preferred over something more accurate that sounds too scholarly for the mass buyer.

Now, a lot of books these days include the classifications of the Library of Congress. You’ll find this stuff on the copyright page of the book, and I find it very useful for deciding what an author’s last name is. (Does Han Suyin go under H or S? Gabriel Garcia Maqruez: G or M?) But the subject classifications—”Private Eyes, Female—Escondido, CA—Cooking—Fiction” leave me slackjawed. I can’t see Kindle going that way.

In the 60s and 70s, an outfit tried to speed up the indexing of scientific articles by typing the article titles into a computer program which would single out the important nouns and modifiers. If you wanted to read anything recent on, say, the effect of gamma radiation on a certain kind of marigold, you could look up gamma, radiation, and/or marigold and see what came up. It did actually speed up the indexing process, at the cost of some specificity, and was useful enough to encourage the developers of the system to try it on literature and the social sciences.

The results were dismal. Whereas a scientist writing about carbon dating of fossil squirrels in Nebraska might actually call the article “Carbon-Dating of Fossil Squirrels in Nebraska”, a literary historian writing about animal references in the poetry of Emily Dickinson might well call the article “I Started Early, Took My Dog”, which the computer could index only under “Dog”.

The technology has improved, but I’m not sure the brain has. Anthony Daniels, whose article in New Criterion on digitization and the future of books, suggests that authors and text-hunters will become a great deal more literal, to accommodate the search engines. I think we’ll just see an expansion of the current rend toward poetic titles and really long subtitles (I Started Early, Took My Dog: References To Animals, Including Bees and Flies, in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson.)

The New Criterion article admits regret at the decline of bookstore browsing but suggests that it will go the way of the joys of trying to tune in an out-of-state TV channel (my example, not his). A generation that has grown up without it isn’t going to miss it, or even understand what you’re talking about. After all, any book they want will be instantly available through some eService.

The books they don’t know they want, the books they might have found through browsing, will be lost to them because there will be no way for them to find out the books exist.

Well, unless there are a few bookstores (and, hey, Book Fairs) that try to wake them up.

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