Saturday, November 21, 2009

On Buying Books

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a few spare hours and away from home must be in want of a bookshop. (If you're going to plagiarise, steal only from the very best of authors, I say.)

Certainly this has been a universal truth for me, so the universe remained entirely unstartled when Debs and I, in Melbourne for a weekend together, frequented a bookshop or seven today.

It's long been my contention that a proper visit to a bookstore is not one in which the intending purchaser butterflies from shelf to shelf alighting here and there as his attention is captured by this colourful cover or that, but is, instead, one in which various sections - mathematics, photography, general non-fiction, and so on - are patrolled, assessed and conquered in turn, much as a marauding army annexes territory. Stores for the most part support this approach by thoughtfully signposting the strategically most valuable areas, making a swift and efficient shelf-raid a matter of mere tactical execution.

Today, however, in the last of the stores we visited, Debs and I encountered a discount bookstore the upper floor of which had been laid out in a manner that would thwart any such attempt at a disciplined approach to book selection and purchase. It had been organised - it amazes me still to relay this - alphabetically by title, with boxes in different areas devoted to particular letters.

I don't know exactly how much of an appropriately mind-altering substance you'd need to eat, sniff, drink or otherwise introduce into your body to allow you to believe that this was a commercially rational approach to the purveyance of books, but I'm guessing that it's a goodly amount.

Ask yourself this: when was the last time you stepped into a bookshop and participated in an internal monologue that went something like "Hmmm, what am I in the mood to read at the moment? Something beginning with R, I fancy."? Again I'm speculating, but I'll wager that your answer is something like "not during this lifetime".

I've not owned a bookshop - though goodness knows I've made substantial downpayments on quite a few of them - so I can't definitively state that there's not a significant reduction in effort to be enjoyed by organising books in an I-Spy fashion rather than by a more traditional thematic arrangement, but I do feel confident in asserting that, whatever the cost benefit, it's more than offset by the reduction in sales.

After 5 or 10 minutes of scanning boxes where books with titles commencing 'cricket', 'crop-circles', 'circuses', 'crisis' and 'crosswords' incongruously cohabited, searching for a book that might be of interest took on a frustratingly farcical aspect. Occasionally, I'd spot a familiar book and there'd be that momentary frisson of recognition and accompanying hope that a similar, as yet unowned, book might be nearby, but such elation would be instantly dashed on the rocks of realisation that neighbouring books were as likely to come from the thematically distant lands of Pruning Roses or Pool Parties as they were to come from the province of Probability within which the discovery of that single book had momentarily fooled one into hoping one might wander. An author's entire oeuvre, no matter how similar its constituent books in style or content, could be expected to be found scattered across the entire floor.

Actually, even this phenomenon, though generally true, was not unfailingly in evidence. Occasionally you'd discover a book that had been located based on its author's surname. But it was never more than one book by the same author lest a cluey visitor exploit this opportunity to reliably identify two books of interest from within the same 10 metre radius.

In the interests of balance and fairness I will admit to buying one book that I might never have discovered had it been categorised and corralled with others of its kind by a less lateral-thinking bookstore owner. Nonetheless, I left the store convinced that there were other books I might otherwise have taken home and given refuge only to have missed them because their titles started with an E, an F or a G or with some other letter that I just didn't get to before the task of searching became all too overwhelming.

Frankly, it was a little unnerving. It'll be hours before I'll be ready to face another bookshop ...

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