Bookstores Beat Amazon for Browsing

I love that I can zero in on several pairs of cool shoes on Zappos that will fit my hard-to-fit feet. Yippee! The Internet brings me things I can’t find locally. Problem solved! I have happily spent time searching for deals in the clearance sections on Banana Republic, JJill and Macy’s websites (usually when I should have been doing something else). Score—70% off! But I do not love browsing on Amazon to find books I might enjoy. For that, nothing replaces the sense of discovery and delight I experience in brick and mortar bookstores like Magers & Quinn, Common Good Books, or Subtext.

Amazon’s “Recommended for You” algorithm is too simplistic. Just because I recently read a book about the Holocaust doesn’t mean I want to read three more books on that subject. At least not right now.

The trouble is—I don’t always know what I want to read. Until I picked up Praying Drunk, a collection of short stories by Kyle Minor and One of Us, a novel by Tawni O’Dell that’s set in Kentucky coal country, I didn’t know I would enjoy them.

Magers & Quinn

Magers & Quinn

Browsing in a bookstore is almost meditative. I give my mind and feet permission to wander and I open myself to discovering what’s there. When I find a good book that wasn’t on anybody’s bestseller list, it’s a pleasure. The title or cover lures me. After reading a few pages, there’s a moment of victory, “Yes! This one will be good.” I feel inordinately lucky. It isn’t just a book. It’s a good read—sometimes a journey to an interesting place. Other times it’s a respite from a bad week.

If I find a book, I buy it, but often I am torn. I also love to read ebooks. I can read in bed without turning on a light and bothering my husband. I can carry 10 pounds of books in a 1-pound device when I’m traveling. Unfortunately, ebooks lead me to Amazon. Buying there just hastens the demise of all those independent bookstores that I love. If independent bookstores could offer books in either paper or digital form, I’d gladly buy my ebooks from them. They’ve earned the sale by giving me a great experience. Amazon is procurement, not browsing. Visiting a bookstore is an adventure.

I Never Used To Be A Quitter

But in the last two months I’ve fired three of the books I was reading: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, and The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison.

I LOVE to read and I consume several books every month—mostly novels, memoirs, and essay collections. It stands to reason that occasionally I’ll pick up a dud. But three in a row? What’s going on?

Why I Set Aside Those Books

IMG_0385Each book was favorably reviewed and the subject matter sounded interesting. I expected to like the books and looked forward to reading them.

At first, I read with enthusiasm, but I stopped enjoying myself about 80 percent of the way through The Signature of All Things. I made it through only 60 percent of The Invention of Wings and about 20 percent of The Empathy Exams.

Reading historical fiction and learning about unfamiliar cultures usually appeals to me. For a while, I enjoyed those aspects in all three books. Soon, however, the level of detail each author incorporated stopped being fascinating and turned tedious. I just don’t want to know that much about moss (Gilbert), the infighting among abolitionists (Monk Kidd), or peculiar subcultures (Jamison).

I enjoy character-driven stories. Each of the book’s main character (and the narrator in the memoir-based essays in The Empathy Exams) is unusual and had the potential to be interesting. While I was curious about the main characters, each had a quality that was fundamentally off-putting. I stopped wanting to spend time with those people.

Is It Me? Is It Them? Does It Matter?

1. Life is too short. I’m not going to waste time on books I don’t enjoy. There are too many good, satisfying books I could be reading instead.

2. I no longer care why a book doesn’t meet my expectations—it’s still fired. I used to assume that if a book was disappointing, that the failing was probably mine instead of the author’s—perhaps I wasn’t intellectual or sophisticated enough.

However, in the last decade I’ve read too many mediocre books, so I no longer blame myself. Too often I’ve thought, “Wow! How did that get published?” The publishing industry has been changing rapidly in the last decade, and publishers are risk-averse. If one book is successful they try to clone it (e.g., vampire novels). Other times publishers invest in concept books in which the premise is interesting but the writing isn’t strong (e.g., The Hunger Games). Plenty of good books are still being published, but finding them has gotten harder, especially when only a handful are featured in reviews and blogs.

3. I need to rely on reviewers less. Or I need to find reviewers whose taste is more similar to mine. I read reviews of the three books mentioned earlier, and yet, I was disappointed.

I’ve learned to dig into Amazon and Goodreads’ reviews, but I disregard their suggested reading lists. Just because I read XYZ, doesn’t mean I want to read another book with the exact same subject matter.

I take the reviews in the New York Times Review of Books and Washington Post with a grain of salt (or a whole box?) Their critics are often captivated by the literary experiments some authors engage in. The book may be a clever exercise but if it fails at telling a good story, I’m disappointed.

Reading is too important to give up, but I do wish I had a better way to choose books. How do you discover the gems? Do you ever fire the books you’re reading books? Why?