The Art of Browsing

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Oliver Pritchett on some more elementary do’s and don’ts of book etiquette.

It is time to reclaim the verb ‘to browse’. Its proper meaning is ‘to linger in a bookshop, sampling the volumes on display’. These days the word is too often appropriated by Internet addicts and goats. When we sit at our keyboards and trawl through websites the correct verb should be ‘to gawp’. And when goats, with their insolent expressions, tear at sparse vegetation in scrubland, they are simply chomping. Browsing in a bookshop is an art, and therefore involves certain rules, which I am now going to explain.

The first thing to remember is that, as a browser, you are part of the bookshop’s ambience. You have a non-speaking, walk-on part in a great tableau. There are two possible poses to strike and I call these the Nonchalant and the Devotional. With the Nonchalant you put your weight on one leg and lean decoratively on, say, the Fiction A–Z section, resting your right elbow on the H shelf (e.g. Robert Harris to Joseph Heller) while holding the book in your left hand. When you adopt the Devotional pose, you don’t lean and you hold the volume in front of your face with both hands, as if it were a hymn book.

You should never sit on the floor, having made an encampment with rucksack, coat, packet of Prêt à Manger sandwiches, Tesco shopping bags and a takeaway coffee cup. That makes the place look like a budget airline departure lounge. So remember the rule: only children may sit on bookshop floors.

Some distinctions need to be made here: first of all, browsing is not the same as lurking. Hanging about in the History section or loitering in Biography is just going to unsettle other customers. And browsing is not the same thing as riffling, which is frowned on, except in university bookshops where it is called revising for exams.

What is the browser’s purpose? It may be to help him or her decide

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About the contributor

Oliver Pritchett has previous convictions for loitering with intent by the shelves of the Crime section in a number of bookshops.

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