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Opinion | An Ode to Bookstores and Promiscuous Reading

In April, Elizabeth Harris reported for The Times that against all odds, Barnes & Noble’s sales are up. And book sales in particular — as opposed to its other offerings, like gifts and games — are up a whopping 14 percent from before the pandemic started. Harris wrote, “Today, virtually the entire publishing industry is rooting for Barnes & Noble.”

The Barnes & Noble resurgence is a victory, not only for us nostalgic ’90s kids but for readers in general. And for our social discourse. Amazon’s algorithms market books to us, but they rarely lead us to those hidden treasures that, by serendipity, we happen upon in a bookstore. In brick-and-mortar stores we can quite literally bump into ideas we’d never otherwise find.

I used to live near a self-described “radical” bookstore in Austin. It’s the kind of place where I might come across a book on queer contributions to the labor movement or anarchist movements around the world. I’m a mom with a minivan, and I’m an Anglican priest. These probably aren’t the books that Amazon would pick for me, which is precisely why I loved spending time in the small, stuffed aisles of this store. I’d leave with a book under my arm, pages full of perspectives I never would have encountered otherwise.

Barnes & Noble may not have such a radical and diverse cache of books, but it does offer the possibility of discovery in a way that algorithms and screens simply cannot. We need indie booksellers, but at this point, we need all the physical bookstores we can get. We need as many opportunities as possible to encounter books in the wild, offline, books we can pick up and be surprised by, books in spaces we can mill about and share with others.

So though I’m drawn to bookstores because of my nostalgia, there’s more to it than that. I believe in bookstores in part because I believe in pluralism. I believe that we need diverse ideas, competing worldviews and mutually exclusive truth claims discussed deeply and respectfully in our culture. I believe the best, truest and most beautiful ideas rise to the top, and because of that, I believe that, as my friend Karen Swallow Prior says, echoing John Milton, we need to “read promiscuously.”

But we don’t usually encounter the same depth of ideological diversity among books online. I go to Amazon with a book in mind, I buy it. That’s it. No browsing, no spending the day trekking through shelves full of authors I’ve never heard of. Of course there are lists on Amazon, like “Discover your next read” or “Products related to this item,” and I’m grateful they are there. (After all, I am an author who wants people to buy my books “wherever books are sold.”) But in the end, the books I encounter online are curated for me, just me.

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