Do you know who and what Dear Abby was and still is? My sister Lee tells me that question identifies one of the generational divides. And once she said it, how logical it was. Those of us who were raised on reading newspapers (the real ones that left black newsprint ink on your hands) know about the Dear Abby advice column, just as we know about the comics page that young and old never missed, and the crossword puzzles that gave us such pleasure when we managed to fill in all the white boxes.
On the phone today with Lee, she mentioned that none of her daughter’s caregivers had ever heard of Dear Abby. And that got us talking about how much fun it was to read real newspapers. I especially loved the Sunday morning edition, browsing through the thick bundles of articles, columns, reviews and ads. Paging through the various sections, I almost always discovered a story that I would never have gone looking for, but which was fascinating or fun or just so unusual that I couldn’t put it down.
Similarly, I love libraries’ open stacks and big old dusty bookstores. Inevitably, when I would be looking for a specific book or topic or author, I’d pass through a section that I might never have sought. And suddenly, a title or a cover or something about a book would draw my eye, and I’d start reading it there and then. It’s how I discovered so many ideas and subjects, authors and genres that I had no idea would enjoy.
Most people don’t find stories or books that way anymore. The accidental treasure hunt, the wonder-full chaos of looking for one thing and finding something else that grabs hold of you and won’t let you go is no longer a common everyday adventure. Discovery has become a factor of recommendations and stars, click bait and algorithms, and whether the book or writer or topic is going viral this week.
So now I’m wondering how do people who don’t dive into library stacks or go to bookstores find the book they don’t know they want to read? And how do people who seldom read a printed newspaper find ideas and information that might not appear in their Google search results?