It’s astonishing, when you think about it, how many of our classic places for randomly meeting people, of having unpredictable and perhaps romantic experiences, have disappeared in the last five years. If they aren’t gone completely, they are in the process of becoming so rarified that they are not part of our everyday radar. This struck me the last time I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop when I had this sudden urge to wander over to the Borders bookstore that used to be nearby and browse and maybe buy something if it stimulated me. Then I realized I could no longer do this. People used to do this all the time—buy a book or magazine, wander over to Peet’s, and drink and read, think and discuss, but now, in this age of technological miracles (ie, the Internet), it was no longer possible. The fastest I can hope for is 2-day Amazon delivery for a premium, and they wouldn’t bring it to the coffee shop anyway.
Think of how many romantic scenes from Woody Allen movies are set in bookstores, where the co-stars fall in love while talking about Kierkegaard or Proust or something appropriately Woodyesque. While some town still feature off-beat used shops with shelves of dusty titles from the far and recent past, bookstores in general are about three steps removed from the Dodo bird. The only chain left is Barnes and Noble, and it’s on oxygen. Where will nerds go after a date, to lap up cappuccinos and talk about their favorite writers or the Focus Features flick they just saw?
Same with record stores. Music nerds male and female used to love debating about their favorite bands over piles of vinyl or even clattery plastic CDs cases. Now music exists as bits that flow through wires—you don’t even get cover art anymore. College kids have likely never been in a music store, never had the pleasure of asking a clerk his thoughts or arguing on behalf of their favorite music. More than that, though, as with books there’s something about leafing through the covers, reading the liner notes, or unexpectedly bumping into something that becomes your favorite, or reminds you that it used to be your favorite and you haven’t given it the time of day in a while and maybe you should. How many book or album titles did you discover just because you impulsively reached out your hand to something on a shelf. It could have been the art work, it could have been anything, but whatever it was, a thumbnail on a tiny screen isn’t as compelling.
I remember one day I went to a bookstore in my last year of high school looking for something—I have no idea what—and for some reason, was drawn to a title on the same shelf that had nothing to do with my quest. It was called Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary by Robert Nisbet. I had never heard of him and didn’t even really understand the point of the book at first…being young and indoctrinated with a public school “civics” education, I felt the word prejudices reflected only racial bigotry and intolerance, and was surprised that someone would name a book with that word, framing it in a positive light (A Philosophical Dictionary) at that.
On sheer impulse I bought the book, and discovered it was a collection of alphabetical essays of the author’s view on all sorts of subjects: abortion, envy, love, religion, wit, genius, intimacy. “Much in the spirit of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary,” the forward told me—there was another title and another man I knew nothing about. Today I know a lot about both of them, and both have effected my view of life, thanks to that random encounter in a bookstore when I wasn’t even looking for it. While it’s not impossible to have something similar happen while browsing titles from a virtual bookstore on an iPad (“If you like this you’ll probably also like…”), it’s far less likely to happen with the narrowly-targeted titles borne of algorithms that just don’t reflect the wandering curiosity of, well, at least me. (No, I won’t want to buy all the Twilight books because I once googled an unrelated Kristen Stewart movie, thank you.)
Wandering down aisles in book and record stores and checking out the newest titles, these were things I did as a kid the way a generation before me rode the roller coaster at Coney Island or drank from soda fountains at drugstores. Today we turn on our screens, heads down, tuning out the real world for our synthetic one of bits and bytes.
And that’s why I think writing engaging novels is going to get harder. We’re encased in our private universes more, universes designed to feed us exactly what we ask. That’s not good for the random experiences that shake us up, which is how every story has to begin. We can still be shaken up by dinosaurs and superheroes, aliens and werewolves, but I wonder what the Woody Allens of the future will do with no bookstores, old movie houses, and coffee shops for a rainy day of contemplating, arguing, romancing. How else can Welsey and Daniel even meet?
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I buy lots of CDs online, use the net as much as anybody to find what I want, and profit from it, at least in the budgetary sense. And to some extent I’m just dragged along, kicking and screaming. I ignore the silly automated recommendations, and am a curiosity seeker. I do wander through virtual stores (as well as actual—I’m lucky that where I live there are still a relatively large number—although shrinking every day—of indie shops). I try to go out of my usual areas of exploration. I’m glad I do this even if the result is disappointing. Last night I watched a movie that was off the beaten path for me and I disliked it. But I’m still glad I watched.
We need spaces for random experiences. Environments tailored exclusively for us sound like a great idea, but they make our world smaller, because they only know as much about us as we know about ourselves—and that’s not nearly as much as most of us think. Sure we are able to skim faster and easier than ever before, but that’s not the same. There’s something about bumping right up against something new and challenging and, dare I say it, even confrontational and annoying, that’s exhilarating. We need to be randomly shaken and stirred every now and then, reminded of things we’d forgotten or gotten away from, something outside the scope of your recent past purchasing patterns and “like” clicks. When the late Roger Ebert learned that movie-watching was switching from the large-screen experience to home VCRs, he said in his book A Kiss Is Still A Kiss, “Count me in with the marauding bands.” Me too.