Cover image for The browser's ecstasy : a meditation on reading
The browser's ecstasy : a meditation on reading
O'Brien, Geoffrey, 1948-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Washington, D.C. : Counterpoint, [2000]

Physical Description:
153 pages ; 22 cm
Reading Level:
1190 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
Z1003 .O16 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



An expansive, learned, and utterly charming reverie on what it means to be lost in a book

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

O'Brien, editor-in-chief at the Library of America and author of eight books, including The Times Square Story (1998), presents a series of wily, metaphysical, and poetic fables about books and readers. Each meditation poses and answers provocative questions about the viability of literature past, present, and future, such as: How many books have been lost, and where have all their stories gone? Or what if the world's books were gathered together in one vast space? Browsing is a form of divination, O'Brien intones; then he performs some astonishingly imaginative feats by way of example, creating speculations that are both arch and spellbinding. His primary theme is the evolution of narratives from the "walking books" of the oral tradition, that is, bards and griots, through each stage of written language on up to our own, in which digitization can so easily lead to corruption and erasure. However vulnerable books are, we remain avid in our love for them, and so O'Brien celebrates our passion for all things literary in this chimerical and astute inquiry. --Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

"In that cobwebbed kingdom the rows of books were like rows of cupboards with rusty handles, each to be tried in turn: What's in this one, or that one?" Brainy and often convoluted, O'Brien's "meditation on reading" ranges through memory, autobiography, allegory and literary theory to try to describe the value he finds in books. Some smart readers will think it a lark and a half, while others will deem it so much navel gazing. A noted essayist, editor and poet, O'Brien has organized his topics and metaphors into 32 small units: their ideas and images hang together through the barest threads of suggestion and similarity. Children's encyclopedias, Chinese classical poetry, Virgil's Aeneid, the invention of the alphabet, a half-remembered metaphysical novel about "Doctor Tobacco" and much else give rise to gleams of language and flashes of insight, and then disappear. Originally published, in part, in magazines like Word, this slim volume can recall O'Brien's previous book-length essaysÄThe Phantom Empire (on movies) and The Times Square Story; it also suggests the polymathically playful critical prose of Elaine Scarry, though without her moments of philosophical rigor. Readers familiar with academic theorists will recognize some of O'Brien's key ideas: "To move through a book from beginning to end is to advance triumphantly toward the death that waits after the last word of the last sentence." It is by no means a new point (nor does O'Brien make stringent records of his sources), but novelty of argument isn't the point. The point is the beauty and aptness of the analogy, the speed with which one context slips into the next and the momentary rightness of O'Brien's observations. Readers who care for this brand of highly associative, highbrow prose will appreciate this latest sample. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

An unusual, inventive, highly creative contemplation on reading, this small book takes one to the dreamlike state of being "lost in a book." Poet, editor, cultural historian, and author of nonfiction works that include, most recently, The Times Square Story, O'Brien muses about such subjects as when and why people started writing things down, the power of titles, the much-beloved volumes of The Book of Knowledge, and the possibility of computers replacing books. In one passage, he recollects the experience of reading as a child, when anticipating the next chapter is exciting and dangerous and all the characters are extensions of one's family. A truly original writer, O'Brien takes a mystical approach as he leads readers deeply into all aspects of the reading process. This book will appeal to those who love books and want to be challenged by the unusual. Recommended for larger public libraries.DNancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One A Reunion of Old Acquaintances * * * We had already been talking about books for several hours.     It may have been Marjorie who began it, although Rex was quick enough to grab hold of the theme and spin us off into one of his characteristic whimsical flights, in the confidence that the inevitably sober Melchior would bring the talk back to earth. Supper was long since over, and we were sprawled -- those of us who had nowhere particular to go and nothing we would rather do than toss about odd anecdotes and random inventions -- on the tatty but comfortable armchairs and the single battered sofa in what passed for a sitting room.     The rough weather brewing outside only made us more aware of how delightfully situated we were. It was exactly like a scene in a novel where, mysteriously, none of the characters appears to have any obligations or responsibilities beyond helping the story unfold. Indolently we savored the circulating talk, hanging on the very pauses and momentary hesitations as intently as on the most eloquent outbursts.     It had gotten to that point in any such gathering where the mere fact of talking extends magical possibilities. So magical that even those who refrained almost religiously from speech -- the austere Phyllida, for instance, locked in what looked like scornful communion with her cigarette, standing with her back to a sixteenth-century map of Atlantic trade routes -- seemed to vibrate to the rapid counter-rhythms of the discussion. From time to time someone got up, paced back and forth in front of the mantelpiece, stooped to refill a glass. The air was smoky and the talk constant, accelerated, a bit too loud at moments.     That we should end up talking about books was almost inevitable. Books were strewn about the room, in no particular order, on the mantel wedged between bookends shaped like men-at-arms, piled up promiscuously on side tables, gathering dust in corners; one (an economics textbook with a torn cover) had been jammed against the door to keep a draft from creeping in. No telling how many decades some of those books had been in the room: one by one they had washed up, books of no particular interest to anyone and hence abandoned to a common space. There was a guide (sadly out of date) to the restaurants and entertainments of Toronto and vicinity; a detective novel by an industrious but none too inspired imitator of Agatha christie; a monograph likening certain legends of Micronesia to the structure of certain experimental novels; a study of the inner lift of mid-level managers that had made considerable impact when published in the immediate aftermath of the Suez crisis; a slim but dauntingly opaque treatise called simplyThoughts as Objects; and, flung carelessly in a corner (the one item that appeared to have been read in full and repeatedly), a thick paperback with a torn cover on which a buxom adventuress and a brawny adventurer posed against a collage of palm trees, schooners, and glittering ballrooms. All in all it was an average catch of Gutenbergian flotsam.     What, in any case, could have been more natural to us than to talk about books? We were bookish people, steeped in a conversation about books that had already lasted years. We had read so many novels that our lives (our lives being definable as what became of us in the intervals between reading novels) had themselves inevitably become a sort of messy open-ended novel. The space between the novels we read and the novel we lived was a zone of cunningly sustained indeterminacy where we were free to meditate on the reciprocity linking the rejected lover drowned in the pond and the anxious vacation àtrois, the fatal letter of denunciation and the missed train on Monday morning, the plague on the estate and the disastrous dinner party, the foreign invasion and the stymied promotion, the masked ball interrupted by madness and the badminton match interrupted by an unusually brisk August breeze. Was it not a system of reflections, of imitations so subtle that the observer could hardly tell which was the model and which the copy?     Books went from hand to hand among us. With the exchange of a book many a love affair had begun; with a sudden change of opinion about the merits of a particular book had been signaled many a rupture of relations. At times one or another of us had found a book truly superior, capable of absorbing and replacing all the rest of them, and this had led to many chilling disagreements, to fierce and sometimes nearly violent rejoinders. There were regrets and denunciations; beloved books that were finally found unworthy; despised books in whose pages hidden riches were at length discovered. Sometimes these things had to be worked out chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence. And how many unuttered curses and unresolved quarrels had been relegated to the margins of the kind of book in which it was still permissible to challenge one's enemy to a duel, or to hire assassins among the riffraff of the rue Saint-Lazare?     But all that was years ago. What was broken off with books had later been joined together again with books, subsequent chapters emended and elaborated what earlier chapters had recklessly truncated and defaced. Through books we felt we lived multiple existences not precisely our own, lives of monastic austerity or courtly riot or flyblown squalor. To talk about those books, those lives, was a further interweaving that made them even more profoundly part of us.     We would, surely, have been quite lost without them. Yet when we talked about them it felt oddly like talking about nothing at all, like talking about weather or furniture. Tonight, for instance: no reason to believe that this discussion would have any more decisive consequences than the thousand and one discussions that had preceded it. We did not look to any impending resolution; we simply continued. Excerpted from The Browser's Ecstasy by Geoffrey O'Brien. Copyright © 2000 by Geoffrey O'Brien. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

1 A Reunion of Old Acquaintancesp. 1
2 The Demonp. 5
3 A Mysterious Disappearancep. 8
4 A Night Journeyp. 12
5 The Warehousep. 15
6 Land Without Seasonsp. 19
7 Lumber Roomp. 24
8 Legacy from Spacep. 27
9 Prisonersp. 32
10 Key to All Keysp. 34
11 The Book of Knowledgep. 37
12 Family Romancep. 40
13 Miniaturesp. 42
14 The Book That Read Itselfp. 45
15 The Browser's Ecstasyp. 53
16 By Stealthp. 63
17 Virgil's Lotp. 67
18 A Little Treatise on Ways of Readingp. 71
19 The Age of Memoryp. 74
20 The Coming of the Bookp. 79
21 The Middle of the Thingp. 86
22 A Genealogyp. 89
23 Archivesp. 92
24 The Magical Custodianp. 95
25 Remnantsp. 99
26 The Lost Worldp. 102
27 Doctor Tobaccop. 108
28 The Cemetery of the Ancestorsp. 115
29 Close Readersp. 122
30 The Blasphemersp. 126
31 The Voice in the Wellp. 144
32 The Other Side of the Gardenp. 150