Why we Still Need Bookshops in the Internet Age

Dare the question: do we really need bookstores (or even libraries) today? In theory, no. If you’re in search of a book a simple click on the Internet can satisfy it: within 24 hours it is delivered in your mailbox. Better, you can have it immediately in its digital version. Better yet, lying in your couch you can ask your personal assistant — Alexa, Watson, Siri whatever… — to take care of the purchase. Better yet, it can advise you on your next reading. Better still, the machine can even read it to you.

An access to the planet’s library without moving from your sofa.

A dream comes true …

Except this dream is not yours.

It’s Jeff Bezos’s.

And it’s a lure. This infinite choice is a mirage. From our sofa, with our laptop, space is shrinking ever more. The algorithm of the machine is in tune with our “inner algorithm”, a force that pushes us to choose the same dishes to a buffet displaying thousand meals.

Anice book published in England in 2014 reveals what the use of a bookstore in such a context.

It’s called The Unknown Unknown by Mark Forsyth. The title is an allusion to a quote from Donald Rumsfeld — the Secretary of Defense George W. Bush himself. Entangled in the scandal of the war in Iraq, in order to justify the merits of military strikes, he had given journalists an improvised course of epistemology. He subsumed human knowledge in three broad categories, three continents of knowledge: the “known known”, these things that we know we know (for example, I know that Umberto Eco wrote the Name of the Rose, that Napoléon was a French Emperor, that the Beatles were four …); the “known unknown”, i.e., the things we do not know about (like I know that I do not know the exact number of the population of Tanzania, or how to say “Thank you” in Japanese …); and, finally, “the unknown unknown”, those things we ignore we do not know (and of which I could give no example since precisely I do not know that I do not know it)

This third continent — let’s call it Terra Incognita Incognita — is the hugest continent. Almost infinite. And contrary to what we believe this continent remains out of reach via the Internet. It remains a blind spot of our computers and our smartphones. Yet, we live in the illusion that all the knowledge of the world is directly accessible to us on the Internet. In theory, it is. But actually, it’s a different story.

Internet serendipity — this ability to make us discover new things— is partly an illusion or a myth. It certainly exists — denying it would be absurd — but it is a smooth serendipity that proceeds from what we already know based on the same principle as « Italy-alley cat-cat and dog-dog leg » …

In fact, when we are surfing on the infinite expanses of the Internet, we remain, even reluctantly, bound to what we already know. We do not move very far from familiar shores, stuck to our echo chamber: for comfort, we trample the “known known” and we explore on tiptoe the “known unknown”. But “the unknown unknown” stays out of our sight beyond our horizon. How can we manage to google something whose mere existence is unknown to us?

Actually, the Terra Incognita Incognita is a country almost unreachable by our own means. It is precisely the bookshoper’s or the librairian’s mission to welcome us to this third continent: a leap into the “unknown unknown” through books we did not even suspect they existed. Towards unsuspected promises of reading pleasures. And that’s the very definition of the good bookstore: the one we always go out with what we did not come to get.

More than ever at a time when algorithms confine us to our own choices, when we tend to duplicate our own tastes, we need bookstores or librairies able to take us out of our “cultural bubble”.

Otherwise more sophisticated than the stupid algorithm of Amazon — which blindly follows our course and stupidly aggregates the books bought by other customers — the bookseller’s algorithm is a key that opens us to our own desire, the one that we do not know yet. Not a desire that we would have checked in advance — as on a dating site or an order online — but a novel desire, that is to say, an unknown unknown desire.

An absorbing mission of exploration that requires to immerse in the plethora of editorial production in order to detect the nuggets. A risky mission too that imply coming out of the comfort of the mainstream recommendations.

But an essential mission for the sake of the culture diversity. Because, contrary to what the giants of the Internet claim, they dismiss acting for the “long trail”. Bookshops and libraries fullfill this mission by delivering an accessible diversity pledged by the Internet — by making it available ensuring both plurality and duration in books curation. By passion for diversity and new writers voices, too.

Lately, an advertising campaign in France compared booksellers to superheroes. Indeed, they are. Their superpower is that of taking us to the unknown unknown … It’s up to us to help them to keep on. By pushing the door of a bookshop—wide open on the unknown— rather than clicking comfortably seated on our sofa browsing on what we already know. ¶

This text is an extract of our new essay “Délivrez-vous!” published in France at Les Editions de l’Observatoire.

Auteur, chroniqueur et consultant. Intervenant à l'Institut Français de la Mode (IFM Paris) et à Technocité (Bruxelles/Mons)

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