Discover more from Cultural Insomnia
Why Bookstores Matter
Algorithms Are Convenient--but What Are We Giving Up?
I was a library kid. I don’t remember most of what I read in my early school days, but I do remember that I read omnivorously. Genre and quality were of no importance—I simply inhaled books, whether they were fantasy series like Redwall and Inkheart, or explainer books about dinosaurs and whales and sunken ships.
One day, as I wandered the shelves, I noticed that someone named Stephen King had written an extraordinary number of books. I picked one up—Pet Sematary, I believe—and dropped into his world of traumas and terrors. After that chance encounter, I got hooked on horror and became a regular at my library’s FICTION-K aisle. On one visit, a book called Insomnia caught my eye; it was a large volume with fine print, and I was curious.
The novel is about a retired widower, Ralph Roberts, who sleeps a little bit less every night until he hardly sleeps at all. He goes on late-night walks and observes the strange happenings of Derry, Maine. His sleep deprivation causes him to see things like people’s auras and little bald doctors…
The book isn’t totally obscure, but it’s certainly too odd for mainstream horror. It’s a bit lengthy—around 800 pages—and contains metaphysical musings on sleep, consciousness, purpose, and death. It doesn’t show up on any lists of Stephen King’s best novels, it isn’t part of any series, and it hasn’t been made into a movie. But I couldn’t put it down—it was my first favorite book.
If I read Pet Sematary on a Kindle today, Insomnia probably wouldn’t be recommended to me by the algorithm. Luckily, I found it tucked away in the library.
A few years later I had 10th grade English with Doug Julius, who was a rare kind of teacher. He was a useless disciplinarian and a haphazard lecturer, but he inspired knowledge in students simply by being knowledgeable. I wanted to be like him: well-read. A student asked him once: what’s your favorite book? Without hesitation, he replied: Ulysses by James Joyce. Then he added: I’d love to do a unit on it, but it’s probably too difficult for this class. He may have winked. He knew that framing it as a challenge would spur the right kind of reader—the kind who would enjoy Joyce—to seek it out themselves.
And it worked. I wasn’t ready for Ulysses, but I tried anyway and found that I enjoyed the challenge. I didn’t think I would like “literature,” but James Joyce and Doug Julius conspired to teach me otherwise.
A few more years later, I was in college and properly obsessed with Joyce. I spent many hours in a used bookstore with a delightful name: Caveat Emptor. One day, while leafing through a book of Joyce’s correspondence, I found a fan letter he had written to someone named Henrik Ibsen. I had never heard the name, but if Joyce adored him, I figured I should take a look. I asked the gruff old man who owned Caveat Emptor if he had any books by Ibsen, and if so, where to start. He led me to the fairly well-hidden drama section, muttered something under his wizardly beard, and handed me a small book. He really was a nice man, even if he thought that The New York Times crossword had gotten too slangy.
I walked out that day, not with Joyce’s letters, but with three of Ibsen’s plays: An Enemy of the People, The Wild Duck, and Rosmersholm. I devoured them and went back for more, but this time, the gruff man sent me home with plays by August Strindberg and Georg Büchner. I devoured them as well. Through Strindberg and Büchner, I learned to appreciate Ingmar Bergman and Werner Herzog. Reading was my gateway drug into cinema.
I tell these stories because they show how important free choice, serendipity, and challenging recommendations are to intellectual growth. These are getting harder to come by in our algorithm-curated age.
Amazon carries more books than your local library or bookstore ever could, but there’s an illusion of choice. Think about how many books Amazon hides from you—it’s virtually impossible to stumble upon a random book on the site. You only see tailor-made recommendations, bestsellers, and search results (which are also influenced by your browsing history).
A bookstore is comparatively limited, but it’s much easier to scan and browse all of its titles. Even better, a well-curated bookstore is laid out in such a way as to optimize for encounters that are unpredictable but have a high chance of success. I once saw a room that paired science fiction, not with fantasy or comics as is common, but with Elizabethan plays. I have no idea why, but it worked.
Algorithms tell you, “Based on your browsing history, you may like…” or “People who bought that also bought this.” They may be accurate and convenient—it’s always easier to read more of what you know you like—but they’re handing you a cage built from data. It’s hard to break into new ideas with recommendations from our past selves and “others like us,” whatever that ludicrous phrase means.
I don’t mean to suggest that Amazon is all bad or that we should shun algorithms, but it’s worth looking at what we give up for the sake of convenience: we narrow the scope of the intellectual meanderings that make us interesting.
I’m always sad to hear of a library losing funding or a used bookstore folding. I’d like to think that there will always be a place for them, however small, because there will always be some people who love them fiercely. But as more of my cohort switches to buying books online, I’ve had a somber realization:
We live in a world that increasingly devalues the individual. Taste has been reduced to data points and collective thought is valued more highly than individual knowledge. Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps the grand ambition of our social species has always been to create a hive mind. But I can’t abide by this world. I’ll still be wandering the musty shelves of used bookstores.