You walk into a bookstore and browse. Maybe you’re looking for a specific topic, or something to fit your mood, but you don’t know exactly what. Then a title leaps out at you. Maybe it’s a book you’ve never heard of before, or perhaps some long forgotten suggestion, nearly extinct, comes back to you at the sight. Whatever the reason, you know you have to read this book. You buy it and go home happy. This is a uniquely human experience. Yes, it applies to the leisured class who have money for books, but it is something that makes many of us feel good. Those enamored of the virtual world are trying hard, according to the New York Times, to develop an app to replicate the experience. Without luck.
Perhaps while browsing you meet someone else. If you’re not too much of an introvert you might ask if they find the book they’re holding good. Maybe you go get a coffee to discuss books. This is just one of the many things that could happen. Here’s another: someone is sitting at a table with piles of books s/he has written. If they’re well enough known they may have had a public reading from one of them earlier. You might strike up a conversation. You might learn something. A bookstore, you see, isn’t only about books. What app developers can’t replicate is the phenomenon of literate culture. Apps want you to buy things. So do bookstores, but they also want to cultivate community. Sure, you could buy your virtual book and then go to Facebook to talk about it, but that’s not the same thing.
Those advocating for a virtual world seem more escapist than even your average bookworm. It’s been observed that when George Lucas was devising Star Wars he took care that no books or paper be shown. This was a post-print world. Some believe this is the direction in which we should go, and certainly during a pandemic at times it seemed right. Even so, when the miasma began to clear a bit some of us first ventured back to bookstores. Indeed, books fared well during those long months of enforced isolation. We seem to think that any human experience can be replicated with the aid of technology. The thing about serendipity, however, is that it’s unexpected because it seems to speak directly to you and how you feel at that exact moment. No amount of data mining will reveal such things.