I was browsing in a Dublin bookstore when I found a book for which I’d been casually searching for some time: The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata, which was recently nominated, by an English newspaper, as one of the 50 greatest books ever written about sport.
What strikes me about that last sentence is the phrase “casually searching”. You see, I could have ordered The Master of Go from Amazon, or from ABE, or I could simply have asked my local bookshop to order it for me. But there was part of me that wanted to search for it, because there is a pleasure, in this age of instant gratification, in waiting a while, in taking the time to search for something, even if it means a little effort and a little frustration along the way. When I found the book, I felt a kind of joy: it wasn’t earth shattering or life changing, but it felt like one of those small gifts that life occasionally offers us along the way, the kind that ultimately makes day to day existence tolerable. It was a book that I had wanted to read - not urgently, and not because I felt that my life would be empty without it, but because it sounded interesting enough to check out - and after five or six visits during which there had been no sign of Kawabata’s novel, there it was.
I suppose the concept of instant gratification has been on my mind ever since reading an article about Google in a newspaper last week. Google, as some of you may know, rather fancies making every book ever written available to people on the Internet: just press a button, and the text will appear on the screen before you. It is, I suppose, the way of the future, but it seems to me that it spells a slow death for the idea of browsing and searching, at least in a way that does not involves browsers and search engines. In my darker hours, I wonder sometimes if, a generation or two down the line, there will even be bookstores to visit.
I wonder also how people will stumble across unexpected gems in this cold new age of virtual texts. The book that I read last week, Lawrence Osbourne’s The Accidental Connoisseur, was found, rather appropriately, by accident while browsing in the American Imports section of a bookshop. I had never even heard of the book, but I took it down from the shelf, read the jacket, and decided that it was something I would probably enjoy.
Would I have done the same thing had Google, or even Amazon, offered it as a suggestion based on a book that I happened to have glanced at before? Probably not. In fact, I rarely buy books based on such suggestions. (I’m not even very good at reading books that other people give me and insist I’ll enjoy. It brings out the stubborn side of me.) After all, I glance at lots of books, but I don’t buy them all, and I certainly don’t want their peers tapping me on the shoulder and demanding attention on that basis alone.
I’m not even sure that an algorithm, or whatever it is that websites use to determine my tastes, can even capture just how awkward, fly-by-nightish, half formed, and generally illogical my tastes actually are. At no point had any website registered the fact that I wanted to read The Master of Go. I don’t browse sporting books generally, and I simply hadn’t informed any website of this particular nagging desire. But it was there. I was aware of it. And each week I would browse the shelves on my city’s bookstores for The Master of Go ( if I remembered, and if I didn’t then it really didn’t matter too much) until one day, there it was.
Don’t get me wrong here. I use Amazon, particularly for research books, and I’ve been grateful to it for more than one CD or DVD that otherwise I would never have been able to find in a store on this side of the ocean. But I don’t want websites and Amazon and Google to be my only option when it comes to seeking out a book that I want to read, and I suspect that, deep inside, I appreciate more the books and music that I have found myself by taking the time to stare at the spines on a bookshelf or flick through the CDs in a rack.
Even now, a week later, with The Master of Go beside me on my desk as I write, I still feel a kind of happiness, and a satisfaction at the presence of this book among the others in my house. I searched for it and I found it, not with a computer or through a website where millions of titles exist but no books, but by waiting and looking and, ultimately, finding.
And, in a strange way, I think Kawabata himself might have appreciated that.
This week John read:
Vicious Circle (uncorrected proof) by Robert Littell
The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata
and listened to:
White Bread, Black Beer by Scritti Politti
No Word From Tom by Hem