The Horizontal Magic of Books

I don't remember the years that I spent on the internet.  Do you? 

Why live less with the internet, and more with books?  I feel the difference in memory.  I don't remember the years that I spent on the internet.  Do you?  I have a nightmare of people who are now young closing their eyes to die decades hence and not being able to remember their lives. 

When people ask you about something on the internet, the question is usually: "Did you see that x did y?"  We are all supposed to be riding the same wave of data at the same time.  Feeling better informed is just a matter of being online more than other people.  Then you get to be the person asking the question and feeling smart.  You look up from your phone, feel like you know something, and get back to wheresoever the algorithms are pointing your eyes and fingers.

But do you really know something?  The way we formulate the question about what we saw on the internet is revealing: it is binary.  Something happened.  Either you see it or you don't.  That is it.  Up or down, yes or no.  Our conversations begin not with human language but with machine language, with the binary choice: have this bit of information flickered across my neurons, or not?  But being aware of something is not the same as knowing something.  T.S. Elliot asked "Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"  

When we do not know, we cannot remember.  Part of the problem is that our brains treat the internet as a kind of external hard drive, and do not encode what can be looked up.  Another part is that the unit size of information that gets our attention is not the same unit size that allows us to learn.  An even deeper issue, I think, is that we remember in patterns, in nests, in stories.  What we learn from the internet certainly has a pattern: what is thrust at us is what is most likely to seize our attention.  But that inhuman pattern, a result of machine learning, is very different than the way our minds build context.  What gets our attention is not at all the same thing as what makes sense, or what holds together.

Books are different.  In an earlier post, I asked where a book was, and spoke about its vertical magic: it is between ink and brain, word and mind.  Books also have a horizontal magic: they exist between the minds of people who have read them.  If I ask you whether you have read a book, I don't really have in mind a particular copy of a book on your shelf.  I don't really care whether you borrowed a copy from a public library or stole it from a lover you left on a subway platform.  I don't even care how recently you have read it.  What I want to know is whether we have the book in common. 

If you have read the book, then we have something to talk about.  There is something between us.  This works across cultures. You don’t know a country by reading its novels, but you have a better chance of meeting its people. It works across time: you can talk about books with people much older, and with people much younger.  If you can persuade younger people to read books that you love, then you have that connection forever after.  Two strangers who have books in common will not be at a loss for words.

What those strangers share is a certain knowledge.  You would be unlikely to say "I know that web page."  When you say that you "know the book," what exactly is it that you are saying you know?  You are not talking about something physical, just out in the world, like a bust under a raven.  You are also not talking about something mental, accessible only to you, like a dream of liquid cinnamon.  You are talking about knowing something that that others can know, something that is between people. Horizontal magic.

And those readers might share even more.  I don't know about you, but I can never remember just where and in what circumstances I googled something.  Because the internet aims for attention, the outer world is a competitor to be defeated.  But I do remember where and when I read books.  Books aim for memory, and they overshoot the mark.  We remember not only them, but ourselves reading them.  And so two people who have read the same book have a way to start telling each other their own stories.

That is the horizontal magic of books.  I hope that you read a good book this weekend.  Or maybe next weekend?