Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Lost Pleasure of Browsing

Charles Rosen at home with his books, New York City, 2009; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

I have read that more books in the United States are now sold online than in bookstores, and have noticed—and assume a causal connection—that there are less books on the shelves of stores. Since I almost never want to buy a book until I have held it in my hands and riffled through the pages, this means that I shall be purchasing fewer books in the future. Just as well, I suppose, as there is no space on my shelves.

Perhaps I can get around to some of the books I meant to read but have not yet found the time. Or reread. I realize that mail order shopping has been going on for a long time, but have always thought that this destroys one of the pleasures of civilized life. I do not understand how one can buy clothes without trying them on, and as for books, the individual book should seduce and inspire you to buy it.

Of course, a century ago and even less, ranchers in sparsely settled sections of the West used to get mail-order brides. That seems to me similar to buying books online, and equally likely to lead to customer dissatisfaction. Buying a secondhand or used book without having seen and examined it first is difficult for me to accept. By now secondhand bookstores are disappearing rapidly all over the world.

When I was a teenager, I used to spend a lot of time on 4th Avenue in New York, where there were more than a dozen secondhand stores, all of which have now gone. I spent all my pocket money there, and my browsing is responsible for most of my literary education. On nearby Broadway, there is still the Strand, of course, but also in the neighborhood, the great shop of Dauber and Pine on 5th Avenue and 12th Street was long ago taken over by the New School for Social Research. Mr. Dauber and Mr. Pine hated each other and never spoke, one staying on the ground floor, the other reigning in the basement. They bought up scholarly libraries and sold the books at very reasonable terms. Most of what I know about literature from 1500 to 1700 is due to them.

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