November 26th, 2008

The lost art of browsing; the power of the book inscription

Theodore Dalyrmple mourns the decline of the practice of browsing in secondhand bookstores. Now that the internet allows us to zero in on exactly and precisely the used book we might be looking for, it is no longer necessary—nor do people seem to have the patience and the time—to while away an hour or two (or more) looking at musty volumes in cramped quarters in the low-rent section of town.

I still sometimes go to used bookstores and browse, although I understand why many people don’t. But they miss the serendipitous discoveries that can be made, and the fun of glimpsing the strange, unexpected, and obscure.

Browsing is a somewhat lost art not just in used bookstores, but in general. First cause was the catalogue and now the internet. One can browse online of course, but somehow it’s different. The process doesn’t have the same dimensions, nor does it engage all the senses. A person is limited by the way the website search is set up. Sometimes it’s impossible to find an item because the proper category isn’t known, for example.

It’s the same with hard copies of news media versus reading news online. I can read an online copy of a certain magazine—or think I’ve read it—yet when I hold an actual physical copy of the same in my hand, it has a heft and solidity that’s almost surprising. Glancing at it and turning the pages, I notice items I hadn’t seen before, including things that might interest me. Smaller articles. Advertisements. The shape the words make on the page. The quality of the paper. So something is lost in translation that is gained in convenience.

Dalyrmple also writes about book inscriptions in his essay. They are small bids for immortality on the part of the person who pens them, just as Dalyrmple indicates. For the recipient they are also a reminder, usually of the love and care of someone who is gone.

As a child I tended to request books as presents. I asked for some very strange ones indeed, most often gleaned from other readings, perhaps of library books (I was, and still am, a frequent patron). My parents also used to receive in the mail the Marlboro Books catalogue (an operation that seems to be defunct; I can no longer find it online), and I ordered a few items from it all by myself as a youngster, with money saved from gifts and allowances.

Just to show you what a strange child I was (as though you needed a demonstration), when I was about ten years old I sent away for a copy of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (hardcover, natch), as well as a great little cheerer-upper called The Rape of the Mind. The latter was about brainwashing. Good training for a future blogger specializing in the mental gymnastics involved in political decisions and mass movements. It seems my course was already set back then, although I certainly didn’t know it.

One of the few books with inscriptions I ever received was a gift from my grandmother. It was a Time-Life coffee-table extravaganza entitled The Wonders of Life on Earth (science was another early love of mine).

I still have the book, although it long ago lost its glossy dust cover. The text and the beautiful pictures and drawings were very satisfying at the time I received it. But after all these years the best part is the spidery old-fashioned handwriting on the flyleaf that says, quite simply, “From Grandma,” and the date; she died seven years later. It was the first gift I ever got that I had requested; the first time anyone had ever asked me, and actually listened to my answer.

A poignant example of the treasures (sometimes bittersweet) to be found in used bookstores appears in Vladimir Nabokov’s sublime and haunting memoir Speak, Memory. Nabokov was raised in luxury in pre-Soviet Russia, a condition that ended abruptly with the Revolution and lifelong banishment. In Chapter Nine of the book he describes the library in his childhood home, a room in which Nabokov’s beloved father not only read, but also took daily boxing and fencing lessons from a teacher who visited expressly for that purpose:

The place combined pleasantly the scholarly and the athletic, the leather of books and the leather of boxing gloves. Fat armchairs stood along the book-lined walls. An elaborate “punching ball” affair purchased in England—four steel posts supporting the board from which the pear-shaped striking bag hung—gleamed at the end of the spacious room. The purpose of this apparatus, especially in connection with the machine-gunlike ra-ta-ta of its bag, was questioned and the butler’s explanation of it reluctantly accepted as true, by some heavily armed street fighters who came in through the window in 1917. When the Soviet Revolution made it imperative for us to leave St. Petersburg, that library disintegrated, but queer little remnants of it kept cropping up abroad. Some twelve years later in Berlin [after Nabokov's father had been assassinated in that same city], I picked up from a bookstall one such waif, bearing my father’s ex libris. Very fittingly, it turned out to be The War of the Worlds by Wells. And after another decade had elapsed, I discovered one day in the New York Public Library, indexed under my father’s name, a copy of the neat catalogue he had had privately printed when the phantom books listed therein still stood, ruddy and sleek, on his shelves.

Inscriptions survive their authors; it is one of their most magical and touching qualities. So do old books. This fact is no small part of their allure and their mystery.

[ADDENDUM: For my own strange experience---also involving a parent, in this case my mother---in the New York Public Library, please see this.]

[ADDENDUM II: And if you're hungry for more Dalyrmple today, here's another good one, although this time of the political variety.]

22 Responses to “The lost art of browsing; the power of the book inscription”

  1. Descending into Thanksgiving | The Anchoress Says:

    [...] Up and down the scale like Oprah, too! Speaking of books, Neo-neocon shares thoughts on the lost art of browsing in secondhand bookstores and the power of an inscription. You’ll like this; it’s thoughtful and [...]

  2. Steven Says:

    I used to love browsing in used book stores as well. Eventually, though, you get tired of seeing the same books over and over again. In my youth, it was endless copies of “Try and Stop Me” by Bennett Cerf, “The Making of the President 1960″ by Theodore White, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William Shirer, and about ten million paperback copies of Kon-Tiki. I think that by law, those four books were required to make up at least 10% of the stock of every used book store.

  3. Baklava Says:

    I used to sit and read the Encyclopedia set that my parents have.

    What parents have those anymore ?

  4. david foster Says:

    Well, I still go to used bookstores, and have found some interesting stuff in them. Serendipity also exists on-line, but probably not usually in explicit book searches, for the reasons you mention–more likely through the book recommendations of one’s favorite bloggers.

  5. vanderleun Says:

    Ah, excellent.

  6. Good Ole Charlie Says:

    A second hand bookstore in Georgetown outside DC was the scene of a strange encounter.
    I found a publication: The Official Transcript of Buhkarin Trial in Moscow during the Great Terror in 1938, published by the Moscow State Press. I started to read it but found the price too costly for my pocket.
    Standing next to me, also browsing, were two elderly gentlemen. When they saw what I was reading (the summary at the end of the “trial” by Vyshinsky), they introduced themselves _ Joseph and Stuart Alsop. One of them – I forget which one – told me he had been at that trial and was there that final day.
    We chatted a while about The Terror and Stalin’s Russia. Their last advice was to hang the cost, buy the book.
    I wish I had done so…

  7. FredHjr Says:

    I’ve always enjoyed browsing in book stores, of any kind. But TIME is the most expensive commodity in my life. If I have the time, I could spend hours in book stores and libraries. Unfortunately, I have less leisure time now than I did when I was a university student and later a grad student. And now I live in a kind of semi-rural area where there are not a lot of book stores, used or new. Half hour drive over to Seacoast New Hampshire or a forty minute drive to Manchester, NH to be around book stores. This is why I do more ordering online from amazon and Barnes & Noble.

  8. expat Says:


    You were certainly a precocious child. We had only a tiny bookstore in my hometown, so I was limited to the children’s room of the public library and my parochial school library. I can’t remember any life-changing books from the former. The latter had numerous lives of the saints. I don’t know when I learned what the virgin in virgin martyr meant. Aside from those respected volumes, we also had complete sets of Nancy Drwe, Cherry Ames, and Hardy Boys, which I consumed at the rate of one per day. I don’t think my serious reading started until high school.

    During college, my friends and I used to visit the Peabody Bookstore on Charles Street in Baltimore, mostly on Sunday evenings in winter. No one ever bothered with the very dusty books because a room behind it and down a short flght of stairs was a speakeasy that had been one of Mencken’s haunts. They still served great Irish coffees and had a pianist pair who looked to be over 80 and a moosehead over a fireplace. It was great.

  9. Artfldgr Says:

    Dalyrmple is great…

    i like him because his information comes much from the same place mine does… he got his from prisons, and emergency rooms and great ability to see whats going on. (i got mine from the same people, but i grew up living in their neighborhood and knew them free in the inner city).

    The book on mass movement and such is good… but there are others that are good too… it depends on whether you have power or not… the non power covert ways are some of the most interesting… [like the class i took when i worked fortune 10 in how to 'dialogue to consensus' as an art to making a group swallow what you want, rather than the group actually finding the best answer]

    however if you want the top interesting texts, then you have to get the ones that you cant find in bookstors easily… and you would never walk up to a clerk to find them if they were there… they exist online… you can download copies if you can find them… or you can get the books from people you probably dont want to meet (nor i).

    chavez wrote one… there is one from the ANC, and others…

    what i learned from reading a few of those is that most of us in america, are delusional… that we really operate without really understanding or feeling that reality is real… maybe its a side effect of how ‘mind’ is constructed, but i find that people really dont take life and things in it seriously…

    you can see this when people get in trouble, or some situtation goes bad… and they are bewildered, and dont understand, and so forth.

    in fact, its so bad that when ‘reality’ hits, we go into shock!!! like the man who accidently cuts his hand off with a skillsaw… didnt believe it could happen before he saw his hand detach and hit the shop floor…

    what i learn from these other books and the mass books and such… is that those who pick up that information and act on it and play the top game… they take life seriously, while the masses they play with dont… they might be right… or they may be wrong… but they are seriously so…

    in fact this dream effect caries over to the dreamers ability to analyse these others. they dont take them seriously either…

    i think this is one of the key things in despotism and crazy totalitarian rulership… a kind of child like pushing to see if reality is real, and never being stopped… and the easier the climb to harder power, the more they seem to want to need to prove it… englands rulers were mostly better because of training by elders into the reality and the seriousness of the job, and the religious missives of responsibility and service… while the french sun king? his was not that way… his court was decidedly more wacky… and out of touch with reality… go to those who had more power without any such molding?

    in fact… it might be that american government with all its checks and balances stops or seriously limits this effect.

    [and that what might be happening now with obama is his waking up from the dream of the campaign, and life and such... which a lot is based on lies and lack of information... and now a bunch of others who people dont know, are telling him the REAL information as to al queda, gitmo, etc... that the reason the new boss isnt as radical as he was a few weeks ago is a shot glass full of reality]

    if you also want to read other texts on manipulation you can also look at sovietology studies… where you read translated papers of them discussing things, or analysts now with archive access taking apart the facts from many sides at once. do this, and you end up reading about stuff that actually was done as active measures or other forms…

    you dig and you will read that the quatrains of nostradamus that predict hitler, were put there by the US government…

    that the AIDS being created in a US lab was a russian active measures campaign…

    that the elders of zion and those things are about a 100 year old thing that they still keep fluffing that twists the jews to be conspiratorial rulers of the world (which is easy to do to any group that is so smart they acheive, and with a good culture, they succeed… no one wants to admit that the way they live is less producitive and positive than others, so it must be they cheat… which is false).

    and lots and lots of other amazing things that never seem to get close enough to the surface for the msm to pick up… (and i am referring to well known and confirmed things… not tin hat).

    great post neo!!!!

  10. Nolanimrod Says:

    Before there was the word “multicultural” the city of Chicago got into the game and turned their library into a “Cultural Center.”

    Although Chicago was home to over a dozen distinct, discrete cultures I’ll let you guess which one culture was represented by the center. But I digress.

    So they had to put the library books somewhere, and that somewhere was The Mansfield Building, which had been a giant warehouse. It became the temporary home of the homeless Chicago Public Library.

    One day, while looking for something, I came upon Walpole’s book on Richard III. I don’t mean an edition of Walpole’s book. I mean The Book, from 1768.

    I brought it to the circulation desk and told them that it shouldn’t be in general circulation. They thanked me and tossed it into the bin where people put the books they were returning. I couldn’t believe it. Should have liberated it.

  11. Peter the Alaskan Kid Says:

    I’m not very good at browsing through a lot of different books… I get stuck too long in one of the first few I look at.

  12. expat Says:

    BTW Neo, I just reread your homework post, and my mind started travelling when I hit Appert. Did you know that Muncie, Indiana, of Middletown and Middletown in Transition fame, made it through the depression because of Ball canning jars?

  13. FredHjr Says:

    THE best concentration of book stores (used and new) I have ever been to is Harvard Square in Cambridge. Occasionally, when I was an undergrad at the University of New Hampshire, I would get down to Boston with some of my friends and I would spend hours browsing through the book stores in Harvard Square. Years later, after I had left the Jesuits, when I was an MBA student at Boston College I often got over to Harvard Square to browse around. End of the month, when the visa bill would arrive, my wife would look at it and exclaim, “Fred, you’ve been over at Harvard Square again?”

  14. Rose Says:

    Happy Thanksgiving All.

  15. Americaneocon Says:

    One thing about Santa Barbara, where I lived in grad school until 1999, was all of the wonderful bookstores. I could browse all day!

  16. br549 Says:

    Time. Precious time.

  17. Alex Bensky Says:

    Dalrymple is indeed wonderful but he and Melanie Phillips have cured me of my longstanding Anglophilia.

    When I was in seventh grade I had to get a note from my mother so the Oak Park (Mi) library would go to the restricted books section–this was quite a while ago–and let me take out “The Catcher in the Rye.” I wanted to read it because I thought it was about baseball.

    By the way, I re-read it some years later and realized Holden’s problem is not that he is misunderstood, it’s that he’s understood all too well.

  18. nyomythus Says:

    When I lived in Tuxedo Park, NY, I used to love taking the tram from Tuxedo Metro-north station into the City, looking in all the old book and antique stores, it’s where I was browsing and picked up, purely by accident, an original hardback copy of Eugene Lyons “Assignment in Utopia”. It’s a partial autobiography of the author’s life and a critical review of the Stalin regime — from within a left-wing standpoint. It would later help inspire Orwell’s warning from history, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”

    This was back in 1987-89, I had no idea I was reading neo-con material that far back, I was in my early 20′s then.

  19. March Hare Says:

    For an interesting look at used books and used bookstores, I highly recommend “Sixpence House” by Paul Collins. He & his family moved to the town of Hay in Wales and every other store is a used book store.

    For myself, I love book stores in general and used book stores in particular. They are becoming more difficult to find, even in university towns like Berkeley. I now haunt used book sales held by my parish or by local libraries–where I found a book that had belonged to my father. My mother must have donated it after my dad died. The book wasn’t a significant piece of scholarship, but seeing his name on the label gave me a goosebumps anyway. :)

  20. expat Says:

    March Hare,

    I’ve heard of Hay, although I didn’t remember its name–only the used books part. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have such a town in your area for weekend getaways, especially if it also offered some nice teashops, restaurants, and cozy B&Bs?

  21. Forex Currency Predictions For 2008 | save onblog Says:

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