Bookshops are taking the joy out of buying books

A new section misses the magic of exploring a bookshop

There is something magical about walking to a bookshop with no idea what you will walk out with. This whole vista of knowledge is open to you. The sum of learning. Coming across something you had no idea you wanted to learn about and then holding and having the keys to a new kingdom in your hands. More magical still is coming across a completely new field, new topic, new section.

In a Waterstones recently I became aware of a new section. Not history, not science, not linguistics, not anything like that. I could instead become a neophyte of ‘Smart Thinking’. This ‘new’ genre of popular non-fiction was populated by books with titles that read like your university friend’s drunken idea for a really great book. All constructed in the same way. Pithy title; explanatory and long-winded subtitle. The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking or The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

They draw you in.

The label ‘Smart Thinking’ turns me off. It takes this wondrous experience of being able to forge your own path through the garden of human learning and thought into something which is just there to be consumed. Not enjoyed or personally cherished. Instead, it makes the individual and private act of passionate learning into a performative act. Here are the books you need to read to be an interesting dinner party guest. The world is broken down into its tiny, irreducible parts and interpreted in a way that means that only economics (Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything), or anything else, can truly explain the world. It puts forth no argument, it tolerates no compromise. It reduces these books, all great individually I know, into an exercise in branding. I loathe it because it works so well on me.

Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash

The individual quality of these books is ignored. It simplifies our messy world into a neat and easy collection. It is the TED talk ethos repurposed for marketing. ‘Smart Thinking’ is positioning. It positions certain books so obviously as being the only section you need bother to spend your time exploring. It robs you, me at least, of that magical feeling of exploration. It reduces your scope for serendipitous discovery. Fiction isn’t broken down into the ‘Happy Endings’ or the ‘Worthwhile Literature’ section. Yes, you do have tables with recent prize winners or shortlistees laid out. But is this the same as attaching a big sticker to the books saying ‘This is the one you need to read’ or that this is the book you need to post about on Instagram. Sip a trendy coffee in a sun-drenched, filtered café and watch as the likes and comments flood in.

Buy me for no other reason but to be seen to buy me.

Our lives were always a conversation between our private selves and our public personas. Neither was the genuine article. There was a handsome balance between the two. As we construct and constantly reinterpret our identities, private reflection always gave us a chance to monitor and evaluate how we presented ourselves. But the private and the public have nearly and neatly collapsed into one another. Smart Thinking drives us toward a purpose beyond just enjoying the nerdy aspects of our private selves. It forces us to justify those aspects to a wider audience. We lose the ability to discover for ourselves. Our purchases and passions are instead for an audience.

Smart Thinking is not a genre. It’s not a topic. It is not a guide toward discovery but a simple signpost beckoning you to the already accepted — a clarion imploring to join the zeitgeist. The books in the Smart Thinking section have their place. But Smart Thinking is not that place. I have read, enjoyed and found great value in many of them. They don’t belong together. They belong in the hinterlands. Under the History, the Science, the Politics banners. They are only positioned together as a short cut to an acceptable, Instagramable moment where you prove your credentials for a crowd that really doesn’t care. It takes the private joy of reading and turns into a public performance. One that needs as its justification the acceptance of the audience.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

The joy of learning is discovering the unexpected. It is the sudden flash of understanding. The first spark starts with the realisation something is missing from your understanding of the world. It grips you suddenly as a learning lust. A title, a spine, a hint of a world beyond your current understanding all spark it. To walk into a place where that can all happen but then be confronted with the ‘Smart Thinking’ books section softens that feeling. Smart Thinking strikes me as a way out of indulging your foibles and fancies. It reduces the spontaneous urge to a corporately compiled list of titles emailed out every first Thursday of the month.

I still buy books from the Smart Thinking section. I tell myself that it is not because of the marketing bullshit, but what do I know? I don’t like Smart Thinking. I don’t like it because it works so well on me.