Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Letter from... a railway station bookstore

I have destroyed any chance of mine ever again finding a good book serendipitously. Because these days I only read what everybody else likes. Or at least rates 4 out of 5 stars

 Whatever happened to the little moments of joy we all got from quotidian serendipity? Especially in bookstores.  

Consider how I discovered some authors that I have always loved, and love recommending to readers. Dave Barry I first discovered on a puschart full of used books by the roadside in Ahmedabad. “Give me something funny," I told the scrawny young man standing by the cart. He flung a copy of a Dave Barry at me. “Many people read this and laugh," he said. And he was right. I still have that book over a decade later. Along with many other Dave Barrys.  

Sjowall and Wahloo I discovered during a mad rush through a bookstore in Mumbai Airport. The flight was full, the gate was open and I had tons of hand baggage. Still, I am not an animal. A book purchase is compulsory when one is in an airport. So I ran in, scanned the fiction shelf, picked up something that seemed utterly unfamiliar and ran away again after paying. In the months that follows I read the entire Martin Beck series in a mad frenzy.  

I had no option but to choose one of Behram Contractor’s Busybee anthologies when I went to a little bookstore in a shopping mall in Thrissur. The store mostly stocked textbooks and stationary. But it had a tiny selection of English books. Literally a single shelf in a single case. The Busybee compilation seemed joyful enough, so I picked it up. My life changed forever.  

And so it used to be.  

But consider how I buy books these days. Perhaps I am out for a haircut or on some kind of household errand. Suddenly I walk past a bookstore. So far so serendipitous. I pop in. (What option do I have?) I browse aimlessly, thinking to myself, “So what do I want to read? What looks interesting?" I am usually drawn to three categories: non-fiction, crime, science.  

Suddenly, I spot something interesting. Perhaps a history of the Mediterranean. That sounds like fun. It is one of those topics in which your are vaguely knowledgeable but generally quite ignorant. Perfect. I approach the book. Pick it up. Flick through the pages. Inhale the aroma. I feel the exciting virgin finish of the cover and the titillating stiffness of the unbroken binding. I glance at the price. And then put it back on the shelf. 

And then, making sure no one is watching, I pull out my phone. I type the title into a search engine. The aims are twofold. First, I check how much the book costs in electronic format. Next, and more importantly, I look for reviews. Oh no! Alas and alack! The book has a 4.1 rating on Amazon but a worrying 3.8 rating on Goodreads. I do not even read the reviews. There is no need for that. I step away from the shelf, turn around, and walk off towards my next target. Oh look! A book about neutrinos!  

And thus I have let a few dozen online reviewers, of whom I know absolutely nothing, sway my mind about buying a book that I instinctively found interesting. What is bewildering is that I even do this in libraries where I can afford to sample books freely at no cost. Somehow, I have convinced myself that the Internet must be used as a filter to prevent my eyes ever falling on the pages of a "sub-optimal" publication.  

And thus I have destroyed any chance of mine ever again finding a good book serendipitously. Of being surprised by a book. Of finding a writer or a topic that I connect with personally. Nope. Never again. Because these days I will only read what everybody else in the world likes. Or at least rates 4 out of 5 or more. Who even reads things rated 3.6 or 3.8? Ewwww.  

When you think about it, this is an utterly terrible state of affairs. There is absolutely no reason why I cannot have a personal taste in books that I do not share with a minority or even a majority of internet reviewers. Would I have ever become a lifelong admirer of Matt Beaumont or Matthew Reilly if I had the internet when I first read these writers? I sincerely doubt it. (Not to forget those reviewers who don’t get how the system works: “Really great book. Well written and superbly researched. One Star.")  

This, sadly, is also the case for all kinds of things besides books for which I swear by aggregate Internet ratings: films, hotels, holiday destinations, museums, beers, TV shows and even recipes for bloody rajma chaawal. Things are somewhat better when it comes to music thanks to all these streaming services that generate radio stations and playlists. I enjoy these very much indeed.  

In some cases this rating business is useful of course. You do not want to stay in a hotel that has a side-business in organ harvesting.  

But often this dependence ruins any prospect of serendipity. How will I ever discover a new personal favourite author? What chance is there that I will read a history of the Mediterranean when there is another one that has 0.2 stars more? Often, I do not buy a book because there is another book on the same topic that has a better rating. But then I don’t buy that book either because the shop doesn’t have a copy or because I don’t like the "better" one.

And five minutes later I have forgotten about the Mediterranean altogether. So, essentially, I have bought nothing. Because of the Internet. Cry. And this happens over and over again. I routinely spend an hour in a bookstore having spent ten minutes looking at a book and fifty minutes reading reviews on my phone.  

Thus it is not just in the matters of news or commentary where the Internet and social media nudge us into echo chambers or through partisan filters. This can also happen, as I am increasingly realizing these days, through my excessive dependence on user ratings. These ratings give us the dubious reassurance that because somebody else found a high amount of quantifiable subjective pleasure in enjoying a work of art or creativity, I will too. They keep nudging us towards the popular choice.  

That makes no sense at all when you think about it. Serendipity, at least in bookstores, is a wonderful thing. I must break free from the hegemony of the stars.

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about over the weekend. 

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