Early twentieth century Berliners may have been browsers, as Peter Fritzsche tells us in his book Reading Berlin 1900, but the history of the word’s usage (according to the OED) suggests that their way of negotiating the constantly changing city was anything but indiscriminate. Browsing was organic to the constitution of Berliners at this time; they did not choose to assume the role of browser but wore it like “a second skin” (128), accepting and reveling in the city’s instability (132). The city did not work alone in nurturing this behavior; newspapers “tilted the city toward the browser” (128). They turned every event into high drama and presented the stories to readers in “promiscuous juxtapositions,” which clamored for the attention of Berlin readers and prevented them “from getting absorbed in any single item.” (138)
Berlin browsers were definitely distracted readers, but the deer, cows and other livestock that made their way into the OED – the ones searching for nourishment between the 16th and the 19th centuries – teach us that browsers were also selective. The early animal browsers searched for the choice bits of vegetation: young leaves and shoots in the spring and smaller leaves and twigs buried in the mud and snow in the winter. Browsing was not grazing – it is apparently careless to substitute one for the other – the effort to sort out the tender edible parts of plants from the inedible rough ones distinguishing the browsing cow from its grazing cousin. Once people realized that they could browse too, they first stuck with eating. Shakespeare had them browsing on cold meat in Cymbeline before Charles Lamb unleashed one of his protagonists on “good old English reading” two hundred years later, although Lamb did not entirely escape the old context, regarding the reading as “fair and wholesome pasturage”. Ultimately the metaphoric use of “browsing” completely took over – or almost, given that we often insist on what we read as “food for thought”. In light of the natural history that defines the term, regarding reading Berlin’s newspapers in 1900 as browsing might raise the status of their theatrical stories, turning them into the “lotus leaves” of an otherwise indigestible city.