The beauty of browsing

I get most of my books from the library. My system is to place several holds and let the goodies come to me, so I rarely browse the shelves anymore.

Then I read “Our (Bare) Shelves, Our Selves” in the paper this time – online, natch! – and found myself nodding along in agreement. Apparently, researchers have found that the number of books available in the home has a significant impact upon children’s reading performance. The researchers studied children from a spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds and concluded that a home library of 100 books led to an improvement in reading performance of about 1.5 years above grade level!

The real takeaway of the article for me, however, was in the author’s discussion of how browsing shelves of tangible books and records led to discoveries, to the sense that books had value, had a past life for someone.

Yes, we can share music and books electronically, but it doesn’t have the same resonance, the same richness as the beloved item on a shelf. Would my own child be such a reader if her only experience of my reading life was the icons on my Kindle? A list of books in Goodreads?

She grew up with shelves and piles of books in various rooms: cookbooks in the kitchen, a bookseller’s table full of books next to the bed, a few shelves full of history and science and coding and writing in the den. When we moved to New York to a tiny apartment, she saw how hard it was for me to give up my books, and yet she learned (as I did) what I truly valued enough to keep: Jane Austen, cookbooks, children’s books, books on writing, and books about London and Venice and other places important to me.

With the riches of the New York Public Library at my feet, I’ve somehow let an electronic consumer’s mentality take over my reading – despite the fact that I decide what to read by poring over a paper magazine, Booklist. I want this, so I order it online and and then pick it up or download it, just like the groceries or shoes that are delivered to my door. Even though I prefer to read print books when possible, the process of getting them has become commodified, lacking some of the joy of discovery. Maybe I need to explore the shelves at the library as my child explores the shelves at our home.

How can I expect my students to find books by browsing in my library if I don’t do the same? I spend much of my days handing this one a book on race cars, that one a book on cougars, and third a book of recipes for pizza. Maybe that consumer mentality is changing how they find books to read, too. Instead of handing kindergartners the books, maybe I need to take a breath and show them the shelves, expecting the resulting pile of discards and just happily resolving them.

It might be time to start browsing myself again, and enjoy the pleasures of serendipity guiding my reading.

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2 thoughts on “The beauty of browsing

  1. Thank you for making me feel better about my obsession with buying physical books. I can’t stop myself and I love having my own library at home that I can share with my children. Plus, nothing gives me greater joy than browsing the shelves and smelling the books.

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