Books sit on shelves and wait for us to find them.
Every book, inanimate as it is in its state of matter, may not have the attention-seeking drive of a living, brainy organism, but it does have a presence that selectively draws some of us closer, while repelling others.
Little experience with book covers (design, size, publisher’s logo) is needed before you can make a basic, almost subconscious approximation: yea or nay. A little more experience with certain authors, and you know upon associating their names to a new text where you stand in relation to it.
That’s old-school thinking. Still basically correct today, though evolved.
Subtler forces govern a book-world where shelf browsing often happens online, at clicking speed, where previews and reviews are abundant, where recommendation lists crop up unbidden (books-by-this-author, lists-with-this-book, what-others-who-liked-this-also-bought), and where many, mostly older, books are freely available on sites like gutenberg.org (50k) or archive.org (1500k).
Such easy, or at least eased, access to information makes for a quicker turnaround of the feedback loop—Did I like the look of that book? Yes/No/Maybe. Repeat—and therefore a potentially wider surveying ground. The internet paths you choose to follow on your survey, however, will readily correspond to the particular pathways of your interest. (Because you’re encouraged to stay within your filter bubble, that is, your intellectual comfort zone.) That said, if you only want to read fantasy set on a war-torn second earth featuring romance between an alien and a vampire with “red” in the title, a search engine has you covered. And in that case, the books you find will have indeed been waiting for you. Passively.
Luckily, the internet is also a place of many influences. It allows you to link-hop into exotic terrain the moment you are tempted to do so by a news outlet, a friend on a social network, or indeed a combination of factors (real and virtual) of which chance can be the deciding one.
“Chance” is the agent through which certain books reach out to their readers, persistently, counting on a cumulative effect. More so than ever before, I believe French literary critic, Roland Barthes, is right when he says that texts choose their readers (and deflect others):
The text is a fetish object, and this fetish desires me. The text chooses me, by a whole disposition of invisible screens, selective baffles: vocabulary, references, readability, etc; and, lost in the midst of a text (not behind it, like deus ex machina) there is always the other, the author.
—Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Miller.
The word baffle is conjecturally derived from the Romance languages where similarly sounding words mean to mock, deride, deceive. In the context of the quote it means a shielding structure, a screen that selectively filters out those readers who would perhaps be less appreciative of the content, and in turn attracts the most interested.
Precisely these baffles of Barthes play a large role in the “chance” that you will come across a particular title on the internet.
Indeed, today’s book-world relies on statistics and complex mechanisms for mapping baffles (vocabulary, references, readability) either directly for modern books or using OCR for older books (optical character recognition technologies scan printed books and convert them into digital text, making them searchable). In practice, books which might be of interest to you will start cropping up in the different places you visit, on short and shorter lists, in news articles and blog posts, until, after sufficiently many appearances, they burst in upon your conscious attention, before ensnaring you in the act of purchasing or borrowing, which is the final big hurdle before the act of reading.
A naïve view, to attribute this funnelling effect to a book’s content only? What about the gentle, almost subliminal persuasion of marketing? There’s some, yes. Actually, there’s a lot of it. But ultimately, books are a cultural manifestation that falls under the somewhat arbitrary, unpredictable like-dislike aesthetic, which can be misrepresented only so much before the misrepresentation becomes either meaningless or creates a swift backlash. (Let’s exclude maliciousness from the world and assume good will all around.)
If that sounds like balderdash in the chaos of real life, here:
Stepping away from the passive alien-vampire books waiting around for its ideal reader and stepping away from the books actively searching for you using the baffles of Barthes, what remains is a blander, more balanced view which allows for everything but provides no insight. With so much information to follow on the internet and to have follow you back, the book-choosing process is multi-sided with everyone having a say: me, the author and their author’s page, the text for itself, the reviewer in The Guardian, the reference in another book, and finally the neighbour who shoves a book into my hands and says “read” without showing me the front cover. And I read.
I prefer some order. So I think of the baffles as real, though sometimes instead of a screening process, I imagine books growing in size and swimming up to the top of my to-read pile via the Brazil nut effect, or luring me along a tightening spiral where they sit in what represents a locus of human thought, condensed, and ready for me to consume. At least that means the title of the next book is always a bit of a surprise, for it found me. Not the other way around.