Shine a Light

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Imagine yourself in a warehouse of books, a vast Borgesian warehouse that stretches on indefinitely in all directions. There are no lights in the warehouse; all you have is a small torch that illuminates a few feet in front of you. You can shine it on the shelves of the warehouse, but the books are not arranged in any particular order, just placed according to where they will fit. You have a very powerful tool, though, the search engine. If you know the exact details of the book you’re looking for, the search engine will teleport you to the shelf where that book can found. Otherwise, you have a lot of poking around in the dark ahead of you. This is shopping online.

In a bookshop, the lights are on, so you can see what’s around you. The books are grouped together by subject or genre, by purpose or type. The most popular books are in the easiest places to reach. There are fewer books than in the warehouse, but sometimes that’s a good thing. If you’ve ever spent a few hours browsing the eighteen miles of books in the Strand in New York, you probably know that too much choice can be exhausting, paralysing even.

But most importantly, there are guides, people whose job it is to know which books are in the shop, and to know the books themselves. Sure, most online shops have some kind of algorithm that will “recommend” you books: if you liked this, you may also like… But all these algorithms do is count the number of times any two books have been bought by the same person, and suggest that you do the same. The algorithm doesn’t listen to you, doesn’t make any intuitive leaps based on what you tell it. Booksellers do, and there’s nothing that satisfies us more than drawing on our expertise and experience to find something that’s just right for you. We try to find you the book you didn’t even know you were looking for.

And that’s why we’re starting this blog. Yes, our website is in many ways a warehouse like any other: it’s large, and it’s mostly dark. But we can guide you to places in it that you might not find by yourself, shine a light in unexpected corners. This is where we will tell you about books that are important to us, make those unexpected links and connections, try to share what we’ve learned from years of working with books. And if you ask in the comments, we can try to find books that will be important to you.

Gordon Lish is my co-pilot.

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