Dispatches | March 04, 2011

Back in a magical time called the 1990s, there were places called bookstores where you could enter and browse the shelves for books. In the early and mid 90s, years before I ever considered attending graduate school or taking my own writing seriously–when I was a reader, pure and simple–I often rode the New Jersey Transit train between Metuchen and New York Penn Station. There was a used bookstore just a couple of blocks from the Metuchen station, and I would go there beforehand, browsing–taking my time–for a book to read on the train. When I browse my own bookshelves now, I see many of the books I bought there for no other reason than that I liked the title or the blurbs or the first page or two, or because I judged the book by its cover. There is Paul Auster’s novel The Music of Chance (a good book with a bad ending that a somewhat interesting movie somehow improved upon); there is a book comprised of two novellas (novellas!) by Josef Skvorecky called The Bass Saxophone (A musical instrument in the title nearly always grabs me—plus, what the heck is a bass saxophone?); there is Rayond Carver’s book of greatest hits, Where I’m Calling From (I’d remembered that my sister had taken a creative writing class as an undergrad at Duke, and they’d read some Carver, and the endings were supposed to be strange; they either make you say “Wow!” or “Huh?”  and I wanted to see what they made me say.); there is John le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” a novel I knew about and thought I’d like, which I did, though not as much as I’d expected to.

Compiling that list, it occurs to me how haphazard my selection process was—which is exactly the beauty of browsing. The matrix of book-browsing with intent to buy includes your mood that day, the weather, the place you bend down to tie your shoe.

Browsing in a bookstore was once a luxury; now it’s a rarity. Book selection for me rarely includes the tactile anymore. The stores aren’t around. I’m busier. There’s a thing called the Internet. I know about more authors and books and am more active about seeking them out. And I have friends who are much better read than I am and who are always ready with suggestions.

The three most recent books I’ve read include:

The Day After The Day After, a memoir by Steven Church
How I found out about it/Why I chose to read it: My friend William Bradley recommended it as one of the best memoirs he’s read in a long time. (A nonfiction writer himself, he reads a lot of them.) Also, it’s about, among other things, filming the made-for-TV nuclear holocaust movie The Day After in his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas.  That movie scared the hell out of me when I was a kid, so I was eager to read about some other kid with that particular pre-teen fear of nuclear-annihilation-before-ever-kissing-a-girl.

The Illumination, a novel by Kevin Brockmeier
How I found out about it/Why I chose to read it: I’d previously read Brockmeier’s novel A Brief History of the Dead and his collection A View From the Seventh Layer. This was a book I specifically sought out upon publication a couple of weeks ago.

The Thin Man, a novel by Dashiell Hammett
How I found out about it/Why I chose to read it: After giving a reading a couple of weeks ago at Freebird Books in Brooklyn (yes, an independent bookstore!) I had the rare opportunity to—you guessed it—browse. I’d read The Maltese Falcon but nothing else by by Hammett, and I had a flight the next morning back to Mississippi…

My question to you, in this largely post-browsing age: What are the last few books you read? How did you come to know about them? Why did you choose to read them?

Michael Kardos (michaelkardos.com) is the author of the story collection One Last Good Time. While earning his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri, he served as Contest Editor for The Missouri Review. He currently co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.