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Guriel laments dying delight of browsing

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‘I’m just browsing.”

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‘I’m just browsing.”

It’s a simple enough phrase, one that most people have used as they poke around in a favourite bookstore or music store as they deliberate.

But it is much more than a stalling tactic, Toronto writer Jason Guriel writes in On Browsing, the fifth in the Field Notes series by Windsor-based publisher (and bookstore) Biblioasis.

On Browsing

Browsing is many things: a lifestyle, a relaxation, a revelation if your search finds a long-sought book or a rare recording, and perhaps more importantly a soul-refreshing excursion in a world of instant online search-and-buy options.

Guriel, a lifelong browser, wrote this booklet of essays while detained at home during the COVID pandemic and reduced to scrolling, without access to his beloved physical media and the combined sensations of holding a book in your hand while your brain processes the value of the words within it.

He recounts early browsing forays to Blockbuster Video for movies on VHS cassettes and DVDs, and later how he and his friends would take long subway rides to downtown Toronto to prowl through Sam the Record Man and HMV for aural delights.

But, he adds, they didn’t need the speed of scrolling, algorithmic assistance and instant access, even if they might have welcomed them as conveniences.

“We needed that long subway ride downtown. We needed the sobering disappointments and sporadic victories.”

Scrolling has rendered obsolete the entire process of researching music in a book, then going to a record store to buy it, Guriel writes.

“Who needs all that tramping around cumbersome cities with boon companions?”

While the pandemic lockdowns forced the closure of many storefronts and reduced many holdout browsers to scrollers, the “Age of Scrolling had already long ago nudged the Age of Browsing off-screen,” the author laments.

“You don’t ‘browse’ the internet. You don’t move through it… There are no aisles, no vistas, no long views,” Guriel says.

He recalls the heyday of record stores like Sam the Record Man and the joy of browsing there.

“Unlike algorithms, Sam’s carbon-based clerks didn’t necessarily care about your preferences, because they knew what was good for you.”

Guriel says he is not immune to the pleasures of a smartphone or the convenience of streaming. In fact, scrolling turned up some useful material for this book.

However, he does suggest ways to limit digital use, how to slow down, how to support brick-and-mortar retailers.

“Mostly, I try to slow down, which, really, was the benefit of old-school browsing in the first place.”

Not everyone over a certain age will miss the idyllic version of browsing that Guriel presents, but they will remember it.

And it may just put a smile on their face between choosing an item online and clicking checkout.

Chris Smith is a Winnipeg writer.

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