World of printed books still the best when it comes to browsing

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 2, 2013 

Book browsing

Volunteer Chris Johnsen put out books for the annual Friends of the Bellingham Public Library Ski to Sea Book Sale in the Bellingham Library Tuesday, May 21, 2013.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Raise your hand if you've always wanted to read about President Garfield.

I thought so.

I was the same, until I dropped by Wise Buys, the Lydia Place thrift shop, to check out their books, as I do from time to time.

That's where I saw "Destiny of the Republic." A clunky title, but the subtitle was more promising: "A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President."

I read the author's name, Candice Millard. Sounded familiar. Then I saw that she also wrote "The River of Doubt."

I read "River" about a year ago after a friend recommended it. That book tells the bizarre tale of former President Theodore Roosevelt's near-death journey down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon. It's fascinating. So I bought "Destiny."

I liked "Destiny" even better. James Garfield comes across as a great person to be president. Too bad he was shot a few months into his term by a crazed job-seeker.

But there was much more to the story than mere assassination. Along with the expected inside politics, Alexander Graham Bell rushes to invent a device to try to save Garfield's life, but the president's doctors prove deadlier than the bullet lodged deep in his gut.

I never would have read and enjoyed the book if I hadn't stopped to browse at Wise Buys.

Browsing is, by its nature, a hit-and-miss affair. Whether at a thrift shop, bookstore or Ski to Sea sale at Bellingham Public Library, browsers come across books that are both familiar and unknown, prize winners and duds, treasures and trifles.

Books on the shelves and sales tables are sorted by genre and category, but that doesn't get in the way of serendipity. You can still find a book you never would have thought of reading, but are glad you did.

This matters because, for many people, buying books is now a digital affair. Yet when it comes to browsing, the tangible world has it all over the digital realm.

That's because online search engines use key words and popularity in their searches. That's OK if you know what you're looking for, or care about what's popular. It doesn't promote serendipity, however.

Example: I searched Amazon and Village Books online for "interesting books I never would have thought of reading." Neither came up with a match. When I Googled the phrase, it came up with about 846 million results, which was just as useless.

Then I searched Amazon and Village Books for "best books about presidents." Amazon listed a smattering, including several kids' books. The Garfield book was No. 13 on the list. Village Books listed 24 titles, but not Garfield. At Google, "best books" produced six hits, including several with their own lists that included Garfield.

Whether I stumble upon a good book isn't earth-shaking, but bigger issues are at stake.

In "The Shallows," Nicholas Carr's book subtitled "What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains," he cites a troubling study. A sociologist analyzed citations in 34 million scholarly articles in academic journals from 1945 through 2005. The citations indicate the range of research done by scholars.

As more old journals are digitized, you might expect researchers to access an ever-deeper pool of information. That's not the case. The study found that scholars are citing fewer articles than before, and are citing more recent articles with greater frequency.

Why? Search engines bolster consensus about what information is important by amplifying what's popular. In the old days, researchers browsed through printed journals and came across little-known but useful articles. Now, online researchers are digitally nudged away from such out-the-way nuggets.

By the way, I came across "The Shallows" while browsing at Village Books.

Contact Dean Kahn at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or 360-715-2291.

Reach DEAN KAHN at dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2291.

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