Lately I’ve run across a few books about how our online activity limits our ability to browse, because online algorithms push our attention in the direction of things we already know and like, making it difficult to come across new and exciting ideas and objects. The two books that come to mind are On Browsing, by Jason Guriel, and Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture, byKyle Chayka
On Browsing champions the lost art of spending time browsing in a store, whether that’s a bookstore or a craft store or a secondhand store. So many people buy online now, that they just find the thing they want, order it, and don’t have to look at anything else. Or they decide what they want before they go to the store, walk in, pick it up, and leave without looking at anything else. Filterworld explores how online algorithms keep pushing us towards specific items rather than allowing us to browse like we would in person, chronicling “what we’ve lost through online shopping, streaming, and the relentless digitization of culture.”
In this blog post I’ll focus on browsing for books, as they’re my obsession.
As a PhD student, before journal articles were available as PDFs, I’d browse the glaciology and snow science section at the University of Alberta library. There were scientific journals whose papers I photocopied. There were books about glaciers that I hadn’t realized existed. There were books about glacier-adjacent topics that were just interesting to read.
Then there was the neighbourhood just a few blocks from the university, Whyte Avenue, which had a plethora of second-hand bookstores. We checked them out on weekends, browsing through piles of books and sometimes stumbling across ones that were useful for our research. There was always something new and interesting to be found.
We also visited a rare book dealer in Calgary, as he sold reprints of Stutfield and Collie’s well-known mountain book, Climbs and Explorations in the Canadian Rockies, and WS Green’s Among the Selkirk Glaciers. He had all sorts of fascinating old books and papers, none of which we could afford but it was still neat to see them.
It’s easy to feel nostalgic about a time when we physically browsed more. In person, in whatever kind of shop—be that a music shop, a bookstore, or even a hardware store. But I don’t agree that browsing has fallen out of favour or is impossible online. It’s still possible to browse, but you have to move beyond the algorithms that show you the things they think you want by getting your initial information from non-web sources, then using that info to dig deeper online, using the algorithms to your advantage.
Erica Berry, in an essay for The Millions, talks about the different ways she researched her book, Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear. “Research meant riding shotgun down the highway and snapping a photo of snarling wolves on an RV. It meant searching “wolves” on YouTube and eBay, and also at historical societies and in old newspaper archives.” She ended up with a multitude of wolf ideas from different fields—psychology, literature, and anthropology, to name a few. She wouldn’t have found these ideas without browsing—and she was browsing not just in person (archives, for example—though many have web collections), but online as well. The algorithms hadn’t flattened her experiences—in fact it broadened her perspective and allowed her to immerse herself in all things wolf.
I don’t doubt that in some ways we’ve lost our ability to browse. But some of us have found a new way to do it digitally—without the intrusion of an algorithm. I don’t browse in bookstores so much out of self-preservation—I’d walk out with too many books otherwise. Instead, I subscribe to about ten Substack newsletters about memoir, book reviews, writing, political theory, science writing, and more. I also subscribe to newsletters from publications I enjoy, like Emergence and Orion Magazine, Literary Hub and the LA Review of Books. I get the weekly Bookmarks Bulletin, which lists the top three fiction and nonfiction books of the week, plus news from the publishing world about who has new publishing deals and what books are being made into screenplays. I get the weekly BC Bestsellers list, which gives me the top ten books by BC authors for the week, plus how many weeks they’ve been on the list.
I also follow book publicists and reviewers on Twitter (X), and learn about upcoming new books from them that I might want to review or interview the author about. Just recently, for example, one of these reviewers put out a call for books coming out next spring and I was able to search the list of responses to see if there were any books I was interested in. There were definitely a few—including James Bradley’s Deep Water.
And let’s not forget word-of-mouth recommendations! I’m part of several online groups where people ask for book recommendations, and will often look through the responses to see if there’s something that sounds interesting.
As soon as I discover a book of interest to me, I immediately check if my library has a copy so I can put it on hold. If they don’t have it, I bookmark it so I can remember it for later if I happen to have a bit of extra money to order it online, or if it’s worth getting via interlibrary loan. I’m like a magpie—drawn to shiny new books and searching through various media to find them.
I end up with a wide variety of books in different research fields, by different novelists, sometimes in translation. I’ll often pick up my holds at the library and wonder where the heck I found some of them. But they’re always interesting, and I feel like I get a good cross-section of non-fiction and fiction to feed my mind.
A great example of the process in action is James Bridles’ Ways of Being: Animals, Plants, Machines: The Search for a Planetary Intelligence. I found this gem by following Krista Tippett’s On Being program. She was reading Bridles’ book and sharing ideas from it over the course of seven weeks, and it sounded fascinating. So I put it on hold at the library. After reading it (twice), I got his first book out of the library: New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. Sadly, I didn’t have time to read it before it was due back, so I’ll have to take it out again. But if I hadn’t subscribed to Tippett’s podcast and newsletter, I would have never stumbled across Bridle at all.
So if you feel like you’re missing out on browsing, consider that following leads via newsletters, podcasts, word-of-mouth, and perhaps across the web and down a virtual rabbit hole is still browsing even if it’s digital. As Berry writes in her essay, “Everyone has combed the beach, and now they’re standing in a circle, rummaging in their pockets, showing one another all the gleaming things they’ve found.”
Maybe get out a few days a month and browse a brick-and-mortar bookstore to see what you can find. Just don’t blame me when you walk out with a pile of books.