Derek Gentile: Browsing bookstores can help expand horizons


PITTSFIELD — In September 1933, physicist Leo Szilard was strolling through the streets of London. It had rained the night before, and the streets of the city were shiny and slick.

Szilard, as was often the case, was pondering a number of concepts during his walk. One of them was based on an idea proffered by his friend, the author H.G. Wells. In a book published earlier that year, Wells came up with the idea of an amazing new element that could provide near perpetual energy, powering cars, trains and airplanes for years at a time.

Szilard, more practical than his friend, didn't think governments would use the element to run a car for 20 years. He was sure they would use it in a bomb.

That was, many believe, the first time the concept of atomic bombs appeared in the consciousness of a human being.

This story is one of the opening tales in one of the more profound books I've ever read: "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes. I mention this not to plug the book, but to point out that this book, which moved me greatly, was virtually unknown to me five minutes before I bought it.

I mentioned this point to a friend the other day. I found this book by happenstance, by browsing through bookshelves at, I believe, The Bookloft in Great Barrington.

I know people still browse, but I don't see it as much as I used to. I'm quite sure people browse electronically, but I'm not sure it's the same thing.

When one goes to a bookstore, thousands and thousands of books are on display, and I often bounce from aisle to aisle when I'm just looking for something to read. I have browsed electronically for books and you're limited to the genre in which you are looking. Not a bad thing, just different.

Browsing in person is how I found "The Making of the Atomic Bomb." It's how I found "The Killer Angels," a book about the battle of Gettysburg, by Michael Shaara. It's how I found "Dune," by Frank Herbert. "Shogun" (which I thought was "Shotgun" when I first noticed the title) by James Clavell.

I mentioned "Atomic Bomb" because I had very little interest in science before I read that book. My three science electives at Northeastern University were "Astronomy I," "Astronomy II" and "Ornithology of The Fenway."

But Rhodes' book changed all that. As Shaara's book sparked my interest in the Civil War and "Shogun" generated my interest in Japanese history.

I'm considered "well read" by people who know me. I'm not sure it's true, but if so, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that there are still bookstores in my little world.

One can't live by Yahoo or alone.

Derek Gentile is an Eagle staffer. He can be reached at or followed on Twitter, @DerekGentile. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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