Why Do We Still Need Bookshops In The Internet Age

Dare the question: what good is a bookstore today? In theory, nothing.

Dare the question: what good is a bookstore today? In theory, nothing. Do you feel like a book? A simple click on the Internet can satisfy it: within 24 hours it is in your mailbox. Better, you can have it immediately in digital version. Better yet, lying in your couch you can ask your personal assistant — Alexa, Watson or Siri … — to take care of the purchase. Better yet, it can advise you your next reading. Better still, the machine can even read it to you.

The entire planet’s library without moving from your sofa.

A dream …

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 what we have elsewhere called our “inner algorithm”, this force that pushes us to go to the same dishes to a buffet with a thousand and one victuals.

A nice small book of 23 pages published in England in 2014 — but, alas, not yet translated in France — reveals what can serve a bookstore in such a context.

It’s called The Unknown Unknown. It is signed Mark Forsyth. The title is an allusion to a quote from Donald Rumsfeld — the Secretary of Defense George W. Bush himself. Embarrassed 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 had subsumed human knowledge in three broad categories: 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 …); 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 do not know not to 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 a huge continent. Infinite in fact. And contrary to what we believe it remains inaccessible via the Internet. This is the 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 via the Internet. In theory, it is. But in reality, it’s a different story.

That’s the problem when we talk about the Internet serendipity Internet — this ability to make us discover new things. It certainly exists — denying it would be absurd — but it is a smooth serendipity that proceeds from what we already know based on the principle « Italy-alley cat-cat and dog-dog leg » …

Actually, while 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 shorelines, 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 for us beyond an unreacheachable horizon. Besides, how can we google for something whose mere existence we do not know?

In fact, the Terra Incognita Incognita is a country where it is difficult to access alone. It is precisely the bookshoper’s mission to open us to this third continent: a leap into the unknown unknown through books that we did not even suspect 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, where we tend to duplicate our own tastes, we need booksellers able to take us out of our cultural bubble.

Otherwise more sophisticated than the stupid algorithm of Amazon — which only follow our course and aggregate the books that were bought together by customers — the bookseller’s algorithm is a sesame 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.

A mission of exploration of the desire that is absorbing, because it requires to immerse in the plethora of editorial production in order to detect the nuggets.

A brave mission also that involves coming out of the comfort of the mainstream recommendations.

And finally an indispensable mission for the biodiversity of culture. Because, contrary to what the giants of the Internet claim, it is not them, but the booksellers today who are the real guarantors of the “long tail” — of the accessible diversity pledged by the Internet — by making it alive, by ensuring both plurality and duration in books curation.

But in order for them to carry out this mission, they still need to have the opportunity to fully exercise their profession. Faced with Amazon and all those who feed it … Because each click on the site of Jeff Bezos always feeds a little more the monster and reduces diversity.

Recently, a communication 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 continue to exercise it by preferring to push the door of the unknown into a bookshop rather than comfortably clicking on what we already knows from our sofa. ¶

Mark Forsyth The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the Delight of Not Getting What You Wanted (Icon, 2014)