Browsing and serendipity

September 17, 2021

Here's a small older essay on browsing.  I agree with it.

How do we deal with the issue of where we get our accidental discoveries? This piece, that talks about browsing in bookstores, has one idea. In graduate school, I worked in the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago, unarguably one of the best bookstores in the world. One of the most important things we did was arrange what we called “The Front Table," which gave everyone a sense of what had been published in the past week or two, that we judged important, in scholarship, literature, and culture.  There was then a filtering function--literally thousands of books are published every week, even in English alone, and we would include a few non-english books as well (we tried to be decent)--but effectively you were given a wide field to select from.

I used to watch professors I knew skim that table.  I believe I saw Allan Bloom and Saul Bellow there; I know I saw Mark Strand and Lauren Berlant and Homi Bhabha; I probably saw Barack Obama, but I don't remember that, as much as I wish I did (he was a part-time law prof and a denizen of Hyde Park in those days).  Everyone had a different strategy.  Some would skim quickly row after row of books, to get an overall picture, a “Gestalt" of the whole.  Others would move more like hawks, lightly passing over the whole until some gripping cover, or title, hooked them and they dove down to pick up the book.  Inevitably it felt like the skimming revealed something important about the people.  There's no right way to do it, so long as you move into a kind of ambient, fugal state of semi-attention, then snap into awareness from time to time.

I still think browsing is an underappreciated academic virtue—not an underutilized one, but under-appreciated.  How could we think about this more directly?


Something to think about this weekend.  Take care.