Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Master of Go

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


Tom Hyland said...

My ‘official’ venturing into the world of books and booksellers was when I was thirteen years old and making my first purchase of a hardcover (at retail and most likely at a much too exorbitant price for a hard working lad such as I ). I saved long and hard and now cannot even remember the tome. But I was into classics even then and steadily working my way though whatever I could beg, borrow, steal or… purchase.

And that’s it isn’t it. You have to own that book!

The purchasing of it is half the fun and a sizable chunk of the adventure. I also frequent Amazon and Abe and rummage through whatever book store I can... wherever and whenever. Amazon and Abe are the better way to go (considering free shipping from Amazon and no state tax … and real deals from either their Marketplace or… Abe’s). The only limits to what I order are what I can reasonably afford and in what time frame I can reasonably read (or thereabouts).

But one person’s poison may be another person’s passion. And if it came down to the choice of books or threads… I would most certainly, and in quick order, be reduced to fig leaf and sandal.

The Home Office said...

I agree with John completely. I, too, use amazon when I need something in a hurry, or it's a mass market item I can save some money on. Occasionally I'll order something when I finally give up on finding it, or need another item to push an order over the free shipping limit. This in no way replaces the joy inherent in trolling the stacks of the library or bookstore waiting for something to call to me.

I emjoyed a reputation as a young man--in the pre-amazonian, pre-CD era, the thought of which frightens my daughter--of being able to find any record. I knew the record shops and discount bins, and was willing to tirelessly look at every album until I found the one I wanted. I have no idea how many wonderful records and books I found that I would have missed by using any other kind of search.

Let's hope some things never change so much that our descendents lose the simple joy of holding a book in their hands after having cruised the stacks to find it, even if it wasn't what they started out looking for.

monty said...

Hah! I TOLD you that '80s bands were still producing worthwhile material, didn't I? (this was a while back, so you might not recall...). Scritti's new CD is great, isn't it?

Jon Howells

Tzanerman said...

I can still remember getting hold of the hardback version of Weaveworld, in a used book seller in Bradford, back in 1995...
I felt something very similar to what John is describing: exhilaration, mingled with joy, mingled with surprise... You see, I wasn't even looking for that book...
Now, if I could only find Leiber's Lankhmar books illustrated by Mignola, it would come very close to me being able to die a happy man.

Man With Big Ideas said...

I thoroughly agree also, I can while away many an hour browsing through shelfs or piles of books quite happy to find a book I'd filed away mentally as one to read or discover something new.

At the moment second hand book-stores are my store of choice as their often dusty and disorganised nature seems to add something to the searching process.

I'd have to say though, and hopefully this doesn't read like blatant sicophancy, but there are few authors were I simply can't resist getting hold of their latest book once I know it's available but John's are the rarity.