The Fine Art of Browsing by Alyson Hallett

Books on a shelfbrowse: to feed on the rough shoots of plants; to read or look round a shop in a casual or haphazard way (OFr: broust, a sprout)

Browsing lets us come into contact with things we might otherwise not have sought out. It gives us permission to be casual and haphazard, to read a bit of one book then a bit of another until something grabs us and won’t let us put the book down. I encourage this activity to the nth degree. It means we have to decide whether or not we want to read something, and this in turn develops our critical faculties in the same way that deciding whether or not to eat certain shoots once developed those faculties too.

Browsing also means we need places to browse. Firstly there’s the internet. A couple of weeks ago, a fellow writer mentioned an American poet that had influenced a poem he was writing. I googled this poet, Marianne Boruch, and decided to not only buy a book of her poems, Cadaver, Speak but also a book of her essays, Poetry’s Old Air, whose insights and intensities I am loving. (I really enjoy a good book of essays on poetry, and another one that I’d recommend is Art in the Light of Conscience by Marina Tsvetaeva.)

It’s good to browse in libraries too. Besides supporting these invaluable institutions, it also means we get to use our whole bodies in the act of browsing. Senses alert and tuned-in as we stroll along the shelves until a particular title catches our eye, or some inexplicable thing draws us towards a book we might have read many times before or equally may never have dreamed of reading. This goes for bookshops and second-hand shops too. A couple of months ago, before getting a train to London, I nipped into Oxfam. City of the Mind, by Penelope Lively, leapt off a shelf and into my hand. I read the first sentence, loved it, bought the book. And what a book – one that I might never have come across if I hadn’t been browsing. I liked it so much, in fact, that I then went to Exeter to hear her read from her latest book, Ammonites and Leaping Fish a few months later.

There are other, less obvious, ways of browsing too. I remember being in my twenties and reading an interview with Alice Walker. The article carried a photograph of the author standing in front of her bookshelves. I was intrigued to see she had been reading and so I fetched a magnifying glass and examined the titles on her shelves. In this way I came across the writer Zora Neale Hurston and immediately ordered her amazing novel, Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road.

Although it’s not officially browsing, I’d seriously recommend asking friends what they’re reading, especially if these friends are from another country and may know many authors that you’re not familiar with. (Doing this has introduced me to the work of the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, the first Latin American to be given the Nobel Prize for literature; Julio Cortazar, a short story writer; and Juan Rulfo, who wrote the extraordinary short novel, Pedro Paramo.)

And what does this have to do with writing? All writers read. All writers have a voracious appetite for books. The fine art of browsing means that we keep our curiosity alive, that we support the wider community of fellow poets and authors, and it develops that inner compass that can send us towards things we might not consciously have known we needed. Sound familiar? Yes. It’s the same compass that can guide us towards a noun or verb when we’re writing a poem. In its own inadvertent way, browsing nourishes the muse and keeps her happy.