One cannot browse online. By ‘browse’ I mean opening a book at random and leafing through it. Online, you can look at titles, full-stop

What do books mean to you? This simple question, which an undergrad student recently put to me, robbed me of speech temporarily. It was as if she had asked me to inscribe an epic on a grain of rice. Or, to use a more apt simile since she was filming me for a class project, it was as if she had asked me for a 10-second sound bite on the Meaning of Life. “I don’t know where to start,” I told her honestly. It would have sounded insufferably pretentious if I had replied, “Books are my life”, and therefore I sidestepped the question and spoke, instead, of bookshops and libraries, which was after all the thrust of her topic.

What do books mean to you? Yes, you, my readers. “Nothing” or “very little” are the answers I expect if you reply “No” to another, related question: Do you visit bookshops? Now we’re about to enter disputed territory. I’m going to put forward a series of propositions that some of you might vigorously oppose. Those for whom books hold immeasurable worth are the nomads who stoop and weave and swerve their way through the perilous gorges of secondhand bookstores. Their second-favourite destination is the lending library, and third in line is the new-book mart. Books mean most to those who read for pleasure and not for profit, those who pursue not facts but ideas and imagination. At the little-or-no-meaning end of the spectrum come those who only read textbooks and allied genres, and for whom books are tools that help them pass an exam or succeed in a career. They are users, not lovers, of books.

Do you hear the dup-dup-dup? It’s the thudding of local bookstores as, stiffly nudged by online sales, they topple over like dominoes. The future lies in e-books and e-libraries but until their invasion is complete there are very good reasons why physical books and the buildings that house them should continue to exist. And I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Million-selling author James Patterson is handing out cash grants to bookstores in the USA to keep them afloat. He says he has made enough money (when did you last hear someone say that?) and he wants to counter the impact of e-books on the publishing industry by funding the upkeep of small, independent bookstores. By doing this he hopes to revive the bookshop-going habit and encourage book-reading particularly among children.As to my own reasons for why the physical trumps the virtual, my primary grouse is that one cannot browse online. By ‘browse’ I mean opening a book at random and leafing through it. Online, you can look at titles, full-stop. When I buy books on the Net I’m looking for a bargain price for a specific (usually hardback) book. I zip in, order, and zip out in no time. In a secondhand bookshop, buying is the least of my priorities. I go there for the experience. Some people shop for clothes in a mindless daze, but I prefer the rustle of paper to cloth, the bookshop dance to the shopping trance. The mind is not stupefied; it remains alert and alive when fingers rifle pages or brush against familiar spines. Browsing can be prolonged for hours, and the experience is different each time, depending on whether you’re alone or with someone, and on whether that someone is the silent or the chatty kind.

Watch me browse in an antique book store with a friend I haven’t seen in decades. We mutely and separately pick up faded and tattered copies of books we’ve met before, books we’ve loved and lost, books to whom we’ve not been properly introduced, books we haven’t had the time to acquaint ourselves with. After shuffling about in a tiny circle, which is all the room there is, he shows me a page of an Ogden Nash anthology. We chuckle over it together. I take the book from him and search for another poem that I recently heard being recited. When we leave, I am empty-handed while he has picked up the Nash and an obscure East European writer whose name I’ve already forgotten. Watch me at a secondhand bookstore with a voluble friend. First we pause at the ground floor to deal briskly with our particular needs: ah got it, oh please look out for it. She wants a Gloria Steinem and we’re dispatched to the second floor where a girl at a computer searches for the title — in the Self Help section! I rant and wail: Steinem reduced to Self Help, good grief, slice me up and pickle me in brine, etc. Spotting the desired book helps cool me down, and we wend our way to the first floor. Jointly or singly we comment on every book that merits our attention, and there are plenty that do. They provoke thumbnail reviews and evoke a profusion of memories. We walk out with a treasure bartered for coupons and recycled books.

Right now, in one of those coincidences that happen so often they fail to surprise me, I’ve been invited to read and speak at a secondhand bookshop. The timing is perfect: it gives me a means to both meet fellow browsers and end this column.

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