Editorial Ross Ufberg, President, New Vessel Press
Publishers and booksellers are hopeful that the end-of-year holiday season will be a good one for books. They are also hoping customers will resist the temptation to purchase everything online from their home computers, without venturing outside, uphill both ways, in snow and sideways sleet, to their local bookstore. On some (not unimportant) levels, the argument for Amazoning your way through certain parts of a wish list is solid. For instance, you can be fairly confident you will be able to find a copy of that out of print novel by Aleksis Kivi, the genius 19th century Finnish prosaist, which you believe will make a great gift for your new brother-in-law from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
But what of those books you don’t know about, the ones you might unexpectedly fall in love with, the books that might change your life? More often than not, you won’t stumble upon those online. An example from real life: Kaputt, by Curzio Malaparte, was one of the most interesting and memorable books I’ve ever read. It is the autobiographical story of an Italian fascist sympathizer and journalist who was, in today’s parlance, what we’d call embedded with German troops as they swept eastward on their conquering journey in the 1940s. I found this masterpiece in a small bookstore in Rome, about a hundred meters from the Spanish Steps, on a side street somewhere where the footfall of stampeding tourists was muffled by pounds and pounds of paperbacks. My experience with Kaputt was a direct result of something in the old days we’d call browsing. You walked into a bookstore, picked books up at semi-random, and repeated this trick until one kept your eye. The beauty of this was, you were doing research while also allowing serendipity to play a role in your life. It was something like a treasure hunt, but one where you knew you were bound to find something of value. Plus, you could always ask for a recommendation from somebody who worked there.
It is perhaps the latter advantage which should be the most highly valued. This is not a Luddite argument against the Internet, nor a call to remember the erstwhile good old days when there was a bookstore on every corner and the milkman knew your name. Nobody is advocating reading papyrus scrolls by light of a whale blubber lamp in a dank basement. Instead, this is a way to think about bookstores in a very modern way. In an age where people seem to have less time to do the research for themselves, and there are “experts” on everything (arrange your spice rack this way; organize your life according to color; wear these celebrity-endorsed cotton socks), we have lost sight of an important point: booksellers are expert readers. To read a book is an enormous investment — of money, but even more so of time – so it’s important to get it right before you turn to page 200 and realize, “This book just isn’t for me.” The beautiful thing about bookstores is, you walk in the door, approach a bookseller, talk about what you’re looking for, and they can likely point you in a fruitful direction.
Amazon claims to be able to do this, as well. They have an algorithm (oh, that mathematical mythical beast!) that is quite sophisticated, though quite private, too. We don’t know how Amazon determines what books will be recommended to somebody who purchases the old Finnish novel Seven Brothers. But we do know that the algorithm won’t ask questions. Why does that matter?
If you were to walk into, say, 192 Books in New York City, and ask Kate Garber, the manager and avid reader behind the counter, what book she’d recommend if you’re looking for something dark and serious, but no more than 400 pages, and preferably in paperback – she’s not going to make her recommendation based solely on your purchasing history. For instance, Kate might recall that the last time you came into the bookstore, you bought a book about Puccini. Being human, you might have joked at checkout, “This looks so boring, but it’s for my mother-in-law, who is a big opera fan.” Kate, being human too, would realize: This customer does not like opera, but he does like his mother-in-law. But we can’t joke with Amazon. We can’t say to the computer, “Yes, that’s right, I’m ordering another cookbook, but only because I’m buying presents for Christmas and I’m trying to find a way to gently let all the members of my family know that I disdain their cooking.”
But you can tell that to Kate behind the counter at 192 Books. And next time you come in, she won’t automatically suggest more cookbooks. Or she’ll look at you and size you up – have you lost weight, do you look haggard, or has something fundamental changed for the better in your diet? – and make a decision accordingly. “No more cookbooks,” she’ll say. You’re practically bursting at the seams. “Why don’t you try Dostoevsky?” Or she might ask, “Oh, what did you think about the last book you read?” Then she’ll do something computers don’t: she’ll listen.
So when you’re shopping for gifts, try getting a recommendation from an actual human expert at your local bookstore. Because, for as complicated and sophisticated as the Amazon algorithm purports to be, the human brain is quite a more supple muscle. It’s a muscle with memory and discernment. It’s a muscle that makes sure you won’t waste your time reading something you’re not interested in, and will point you to books that can really matter in your life. So far, there’s no algorithm invented that can make that claim.