Browser's Ecstasy: A Meditation on Reading

Browser's Ecstasy: A Meditation on Reading

by Geoffrey O'Brien
From one of the most original writers now at work, an expansive, learned, and utterly charming reverie on what it means to be lost in a book

Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker, called Geoffrey O'Brien's The Phantom Empire "a prose poem about the pleasures and distractions of movie-watching," "an ambitiously literary attempt to write about the


From one of the most original writers now at work, an expansive, learned, and utterly charming reverie on what it means to be lost in a book

Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker, called Geoffrey O'Brien's The Phantom Empire "a prose poem about the pleasures and distractions of movie-watching," "an ambitiously literary attempt to write about the [mystery of the] medium as though it were a dream the author had just awakened from." Now, in The Browser's Ecstasy, O'Brien has written a prose poem about reading, a playful, epigrammatic nocturne upon the dream-state one falls into when "lost in a book," upon the uncanny, trancelike pleasure of making silent marks on paper utter sounds inside one's head.

We call The Browser's Ecstasy a "Meditation on Reading," but like any truly original book-and especially the short book that goes both far and deep—it resists easy summary and classification. As Luc Sante once wrote, "The density of O'Brien's work makes word count irrelevant as an index of substance; he is seemingly capable of compressing entire encyclopedias into his parenthetical asides. I defy you to name any precedent for what he does. He's a school unto himself.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"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 essays--The 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) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal - Library Journal
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.--Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
With no scholarly trappings, this quasi-memoir describes the author's personal experience of getting lost in a book. Lists of books, writers, short excerpts, and a brief novella all are woven into the text. Poet, editor, and cultural historian O'Brien is also the author of a similar book on movie watching, , and plans a third about music. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Daniel Mendelsohn
...strangely beautiful...Love—love for reading, for books, for readers of his book—shimmers off nearly every page of Geoffrey O'Brien's idiosyncratic prose poem about the joys of reading. The Browser's Ecstasy has the hallucinatory beauty of a fable, or a dream.
New York
Erin Doyle
A meditation this is. The style is so dense, so stream of consciousness, it is easy to get lost to the point that the text carries the reader away in a dreamy reverie that tends to leave the page as often as it stays focused on it. An individual's "dream," set within the framework of a post-dinner discussion populated by hard-core bibliophiles, this tale connects the threads of text, memory, meaning-making and the power of reading. O'Brien imagines, variously, a world without books, the connections between what one reads now and what one might chance to read in the future, and the overlapping realities one lives when invested in books and life simultaneously. This brings to mind Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, in that the written word and its power are juxtaposed with the intellectual flatlands of a world in which books are viewed as clutter, shipped off to a remote warehouse and left to decay. The narrator, venturing to this outpost that he half remembers from either dreams or his youth, begins a journey of the mind and spirit as he meditates on the power of literature to sustain the wanderer, the invalid and the solitary reader. The ideas are powerful and far-reaching, expressed eloquently and philosophically, but the tendency toward the pedantic makes this a bit of a chore after a while.

Product Details

Counterpoint Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.38(w) x 8.37(h) x 0.75(d)
1190L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

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 simply Thoughts 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 à trois, 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.

What People are saying about this

Luc Sante
The density of O'Brien's work makes word count irrelevant as an index of substance; he is seemingly capable of compressing entire encyclopedias into his parenthetical asides�.His prose is supple and fluid even while it now and then swerves way out over the lip of the chasm, his wit is brazenly dry, and sometimes you feel a cloud of real sadness flows through. I defy you to name any precedent for what he does. He is a school onto himself.
—(Luc Sante)
Maureen Howard
The Browser's Ecstasy is a wonderbook, a glorious and compelling read on the pleasures of reading. Geoffrey O'Brien explores the landscape of the book—intimate and strange, familiar and uncharted—with invention and contagious delight.
—(Maureen Howard)

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