Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The end of browsing

with 5 comments

A while back, I wrote a post about intentional randomness as a creative tool, explaining how I sometimes use Shakespeare and the I Ching to generate ideas. The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that I’ve neglected to discuss the single most useful source of creative randomness, and the one that has given me the most pleasure over the years: other books. In particular, the neglected books, often obscure or out of print, that you discover by accident, when looking for something else or nothing at all—which is when your mind is most receptive to unexpected influences. And the only place where such discoveries can really take place is a great used bookstore.

Jorge Luis Borges famously said that heaven, for him, was a sort of library. For me, it’s more like the perfect used bookstore: musty, crowded, cheap, and only vaguely organized. Libraries are great, but their very rationality, which is otherwise such a miracle, greatly reduces the chances of a spontaneous discovery—although I’ve recently taken to roaming the shelves of the Sulzer Regional branch here in Lincoln Square, hoping that I’ll stumble across something unexpected. To find something really special, though, you need something like the massive dollar bin at the Strand in New York, or the late lamented basement of The Ark in Chicago: a chaotic jumble, a mildewed treasure hoard, a browser’s paradise.

And the discoveries you make are unforgettable. I still remember the moment, something like fourteen years ago, when I first saw The Anatomy of Melancholy at Shakespeare & Co. in Berkeley. More recently, I found The Road to Xanadu at Bookman’s Corner here in Chicago—a wonderful bookstore that looks like the remains of another, larger bookstore that exploded. The Portable Dragon all but leapt off the shelf two months ago at Pegasus Books. Even a chain like Borders has its occasional surprises: my copy of David Mamet’s On Directing Film, which faithful readers will know I treat almost as a religious text, was picked up for something like five dollars in the Borders bargain bin.

But even Borders, alas, is closing most of its Chicago stores. And as Noel Murray recently pointed out on the AV Club, the death of such big box stores, on top of the independent bookstores they replaced, threatens to mark the end of browsing, which had already been dealt a mortal blow by the coming of Every book imaginable is available online, at least for a price, which would have dazzled my younger self, who looked eagerly forward to his monthly trip to Waldenbooks—but it also threatens to eliminate the happy accidents for which I still spend hours at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest and Newberry Library Book Fair. In the old days, you had no choice but to browse; now it’s something you need to make time for. And you should. Because you never know when you’re going to find the book that will change your life.

5 Responses

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  1. When I was in Chicago in the Fall I arrived super-early for an interview at the University of Chicago, and while wandering around I stumbled into a neat antiquarian bookstore just a few blocks from the 56th Street Metra station. Have you ever been? It was just west of the station in Hyde Park. (I bought a 1921 copy of Gustave Le Bon’s “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” which was a wonderful bit of serendipity for my project.)


    March 11, 2011 at 11:38 am

  2. Is this the one you mean? Haven’t been there before (it’s a bit out of my way), but it looks awesome.


    March 11, 2011 at 11:45 am

  3. Yes, that’s it! It’s a wonderful place. That and the university’s unexpectedly incredible Oriental Institute museum made for a great day …


    March 11, 2011 at 3:52 pm

  4. Still delighting, instructing and diverting I see.

    and “Anatomy of Melancholy” is my life right now.
    (don’t ask, don’t tell)


    March 11, 2011 at 9:15 pm

  5. @Arthur: It’s good to have you back!


    March 11, 2011 at 9:21 pm

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