What is a book? A landscape, a community, a refuge? Roberto Bolaño, in a late interview, said that a library is a symbol for everything good about human nature, the way a concentration camp is also a symbol for everything evil. Marcel Proust writes that authors may call their books Conclusions, but for the reader they are called Provocations: we want books to give us answers when all they can give us are desires.
The topic is a vast and mysterious one, but the only conversation to be had about it nowadays is the one about e-books: the ways reading a file on a Kindle or iPad is like reading a book and the ways it isn’t (Subconversation One: better; Subconversation Two: worse). Books—and e-books and blogs, too—have been written on the debate, positions staked out, and all the arguments made about what e-books are or aren’t or will be. But the arguments assume that we already know what the existing technology is, what e-books are trying to be (or trying not to be).
It is salutary in this context to consider the brief history of food science that Michael Pollan lays out in his influential manifesto In Defense of Food. Pollan describes the last century and a half of nutritionism, from Prout’s and Liebig’s discovery of the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fat), through vitamins in the 1920s, to antioxidants and omega-3s and the rest today. Liebig thought he had unlocked the secrets of food, but children fed his formula failed to thrive, and sailors on his diet got scurvy. There was more to nutrition than was dreamt of in his philosophy. In general, every new discovery convinces the technocrats that now they know everything, but it never turns out that way: low-fat food actually makes us fat; margarine isn’t a better, healthier substitute for butter, because trans-fats will kill you. Beta-carotene, another miracle nutrient, fights cancer, but supplements isolated from the carrots the chemical is found in don’t cure cancer, and may even increase the risk. Our bodies can’t make full use of the lycopene in tomatoes without the olive oil Italians have always known we should cook tomatoes with. Food (as opposed to nutrients) or a cuisine (as opposed to ingredients) is always more complex than suspected.
These days we are more or less at the macronutrient stage of understanding books, aware of only three things a book is or does: you can buy a book, you can hold it, and it delivers information. Replicate those three features and you’re done. We’ve arguably discovered vitamins and minerals: the importance of page layout, illustrations, annotating, lending to friends, organizing a library, and so on. The next-generation iPad will no doubt evince an antioxidant or two.
But surely, in twenty or fifty years, another Michael Pollan will turn up with a manifesto citing all the research that shows how everything is more complicated. That the smell of ink on paper aids reading comprehension; that the relative weight of pages in the left hand and right hand activates neurotransmitters of suspense; that seeing spines on a bookshelf at home, in passing, when you’re not actively reading or thinking about books, is crucial for the memory and synthesis of what you’ve read. We will know more, though surely not all, about the moral, social, and geospatial dimensions of the book, and other cofactors and cross-contaminations I can’t imagine.
We needn’t look as far as food for analogies to the hidden benefits of analog reading: Walter Murch, the great film editor, wrote about the new digital film-editing technology versus the older methods in the 1995 afterword to his superb book In the Blink of an Eye. Along with technical problems specific to the time, he writes about the software’s creative problems: it lets you find what you’re looking for faster, but it turns out we never know what we are looking for. Spinning through reels of film for the scene you think you want is when, Murch reminds us, you come across the scene you actually want, not to mention that a mandatory period of physically turning a crank (and mentally zoning out) is a blank interlude crucial to the creative process. Bugs in the linear, analog process turn out to be features.
We are hurtling on with the project and practice of replacing books, and nothing anyone writes will change that. But let us at least not presume too quickly that we understand what it is we’re replacing.
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