We Want To Search, But We Need To Browse

For many years, I used to joke that I was single-handedly keeping Barnes and Noble in business. Ten years ago, when I moved back home to New York, my day-off ritual was to go for a nice walk or a subway ride to browse the bookstores in Lincoln Square, CitiCenter, 82nd and Broadway, or Union Square.

The other day, I walked to Barnes and Noble at CitiCenter, and was sad to see that, like many brick-and-mortar bookstores, it had closed. And I walked away, wistful, I wondered why I feel so invested in bookstores, especially because I read most news articles on my phone and love Amazon Prime. What is it about aimlessly wandering through a bookstore that feels so good?

Leon Wieseltier helped articulate why in an article a few years ago — there’s a difference between “browsing” and “searching.”

Browsing is the opposite of “search.” Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges.

One of the reasons I loved browsing at Barnes and Noble is that I’d come across new books and new authors that I hadn’t heard of. More importantly, I’d discover new ideas that I hadn’t seen before. And one of the biggest problems in today’s world is that we tend to narrow our vision, rather than broaden it.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a feature entitled “Blue Feed, Red Feed,” helping both liberals and conservatives at least understand where the other is coming from. It’s based on a paper published by Science magazine, and by selecting topics such as Hillary Clinton or ISIS or guns or abortion, you can see how “the other side” is talking about these issues.

What’s especially valuable is that most search algorithms reinforce an echo chamber. Even if we don’t always know what we’re looking for, our searches, our likes and our shares will create an algorithm that will simply give us what we want. But what we need is the ability to not just search, but to browse.

And so even though browsing itself is almost mindless, in fact, it takes tremendous effort. We have to be “consciously unconscious,” being willing to open our eyes and discover new connections. We can’t plan for them, but we can embrace them when they happen.

So as we find more and more articles and books that reinforce our existing worldview, let’s remember that it’s worth just wandering around a little bit. We don’t know if we’ll find anything, but it will keep us aware of the possibilities of the new and the unexpected.

That’s why, even though they are becoming rarer and rarer, I’ll be going to bookstores for as long as they exist. Who knows what I might find?

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