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The Book Pages: Blockbuster nights and long-lost delights

Jason Guriel was tired of scrolling. It was early 2021, a year into the pandemic, and the poet and writer had had enough.

“I was feeling very tired of my computer screen,” says the Toronto-based writer. “I was constantly scrolling. I was working remotely on a screen all day. At night, we were ordering groceries off the screen, buying kids’ clothing off the screen. And so, on a whim, I wrote this essay that was, I think, initially almost a screed against scrolling. But really what it was, was this kind of love letter to the in-person, analogue, physical practice of perusing the world.”

After an editor at Canada’s The Walrus magazine published the essay, titled “Life in the Stacks: A Love Letter to Browsing,” it drew attention online, which led to Guriel’s publisher asking him to write a book for its Field Notes series, which are short, punchy takes on single topics, such as class, property or risk.

Jason Guriel is the author of “On Browsing.” (Courtesy of Biblioasis)

The result is “On Browsing,” which hit bookstores this week (and you got a taste of Guriel’s opinions in last week’s Q&A). The slender book features a selection of essays that include “In Praise of the Mall, Boredom and Just Browsing,” “I Remember the Bookstore” and “Against the Stream.”

In the book, Guriel recalls the shops he and his friends would visit and the hours they would spend looking for music, books and movies – a pastime that has increasingly become an activity of a past time. In those pre-cellphone days, he argues, you could disappear into your searches; no one had instant access to you or your attention.

“Combing through CD bins, combing through bookshelves, discovering things, stumbling onto things we hadn’t set out to find,” Guriel says. “That’s kind of how I think about this, this practice of browsing. And really, it was a practice that was very much attended by a kind of serendipity. You might have been looking for something, but you didn’t necessarily know what you’d find.”

Guriel also recaptures what it was like to search the videostore for something to watch “I miss browsing those chunky foxed VHS cases,” he writes in the opening essay that describes the decisions you faced while meandering the aisles. “And this was in boring old Blockbuster, a corporate chain!”

These folks look happy with what they found at the rental store, so it's a safe bet they found the only available copy of "Titanic." (Getty Images)
These folks look happy with what they found at the rental store, so it’s a safe bet they found the only available copy of “Titanic.” (Getty Images)

That corporate chain was the place to go for those without a local or independent store nearby; it was also where you’d see everyone else you knew. “That’s another institution that I miss. I grew up in the suburbs; there were better movie rental places in the city, but Blockbuster was a fun experience on a Friday night. Everyone was there.”

To be clear, Guriel isn’t some curmudgeon stuck in the past – he uses Netflix and Disney+ to stream shows for his kids – but he argues that browsing brick-and-mortar stores offered something that algorithms can’t: The expertise and enthusiasm of people who knew and loved the material they were selling or renting.

He refers to the Toronto music store Soundscapes, now closed, as an example. “I’d ask about something and they’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s okay. But you really want this other record,” he recalls. “None of it was condescending, but there was a charming snobbishness to it.”

I’ll admit that I’m the ideal audience for what Guriel’s talking about. I worked at an independent record store during college – I consider the education I got there to be as valuable as the one I got at school – and I loved connecting people with music I suspected they’d enjoy. And though I’ve always been an avid bookstore shopper, I’ve been spending more time browsing and talking to clerks since reading his book.

“That human touch is missing, that human who was recommending something to you in person because they loved it and they think you might love it too – or you might be worthy of it. That all gets swept away by the zeros and ones of the pixelated screens,” says Guriel.

In the days before videostores, couples would try to enjoy a Blockbuster night at the local haberdashery. (Getty Images)
In the days before videostores, couples would try to enjoy a Blockbuster night at the local haberdashery. (Getty Images)

Thumbing through screens isn’t about to stop anytime soon, but Guriel says scrolling doesn’t have the same resonance as seeking and finding a book or record you’d been searching for.

“I can remember where I was when I bought particular albums,” he says. But he can’t recall where he was with his laptop after ordering from a website.

“You really don’t get any of that experience online.”

‘The Innocent One’ author Lisa Ballantyne avoids a certain kind of book

Lisa Ballantyne's "The Innocent One." (Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)
Lisa Ballantyne’s “The Innocent One.” (Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

Author Lisa Ballantyne’s latest novel is “The Innocent One,” out now from Pegasus Books. Her previous books were international bestsellers, and include her debut, “The Guilty One,” which was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award and translated into 30 languages, along with “Everything She Forgot,” “Little Liar” and “Once Upon a Lie.” Ballantyne lives in Glasgow, Scotland.

Q. Do you have a favorite book or books?

I read so much that my favorite books are always surpassed or added to by new reading experiences, that is to say my favorite books change all the time. There are authors whose books tend to be very special to me. Of those contemporary authors, I count Elizabeth Strout, Pat Barker, Kate Atkinson, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Tyler and Marilynne Robinson among my favorites – most of these are North American writers.

Q. Which books do you plan, or hope, to read next?

I am about to embark upon a nonfiction book, which a friend loaned to me: “The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper.” My friend is an avid reader and I trust her judgment when she recommends something to me, yet I am putting off reading this book because of the difficult subject matter.

My own novels tend to deal with dark subject matter, so one might expect that when I read for pleasure I consume similar books, but that is not the case. In shining a light onto dark corners in my own fiction, I often have to research challenging subjects such as violence and its causes, but in my own reading I shy away from violent subject matter.

Q. Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life – a teacher, a parent, a librarian or someone else?

I think most authors have a transformative English teacher in their past, someone who encouraged and inspired their love of reading and writing, and that is certainly true of me. My English teacher was a very small woman who had grown up on the Scottish island of Orkney, so she had a strange accent, but despite her tiny size she was a powerhouse of energy and enthusiasm. She encouraged my writing and I remember learning to love the poets Sylvia Plath and Norman McCaig through her, and the Romantic novelist Thomas Hardy.

Q. What do you find the most appealing in a book: the plot, the language, the cover, a recommendation? Do you have any examples?

I think what I find most appealing in novel is strong characters that I can see, hear, smell and feel immediately. My own books are very character-driven.

I think of Alice Munro’s stories and how she is able to bring to life vivid characters and lives within just a few pages. A lot of this is about deft skill with language.

Q. What’s a memorable book experience – good or bad – you’re willing to share?

For me the best reading experiences are when I just don’t want the book to end at all, and so I begin to ration the pages. I remember reading Donna Tartt’s book, “The Goldfinch” in this way (thankfully it’s a quite a long book), eking it out at just a few pages a day over several weeks.

Q. What’s something about your book that no one knows?

My new novel, “The Innocent One,” is a story about a man who was tried for murder as a child, finding himself once again accused as an adult. It is a story about nature versus nurture and the potential for change in an individual, asking the question – are there some crimes where a person is never allowed to atone?

One thing no one knows about that book (until now, I guess) is that I didn’t get a chance to visit the locations of the novel until after it was published. I have recently gone on a road trip to visit the places my story is set, but all of these real settings were written relying on my imagination and research to make them come to life.

Postcards from writers

Have you ever wanted to get mail from a favorite writer? If so, you might check out the auction in support of The Common, which allows you to bid for the chance to receive personalized postcards from writers including Donna Tartt, Neil Gaiman, Min Jin Lee, Edwidge Danticat, George Saunders, and many more (including musicians like Jeff Tweedy and Natalie Merchant). Bidding ends Nov. 30, and I’m sure you (or any reader) would be happy to score one of these.

OK, that’s it for this week. Let me know what you’ve enjoyed recently, and your recommendations might appear in the column. You can reach me at [email protected]

Thanks, as always, for reading.

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