“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire, made this plain yet meaty declaration concerning best food practices in a 2007 article called “Unhappy Meals” for The New York Times Magazine. It has resonated with me since I read it recently. Deceptively simple, each sentence contains multitudes of implications about food and eating habits that Pollan explains further into his article. This Pollan Doctrine has inspired my own literary interpretation that can serve as the basis for what I see as best reading practices:
“Read books. Often. Mostly print.”
We need to eat to live. But Pollan doesn’t just say Eat. He says Eat food. The difference to him is between “whole fresh foods” and “processed food products,” the latter being “edible food-like substances” from the supermarket that will fill your stomach but won’t make you healthy. Likewise, to be head-healthy we need to read, but not only that: we need to read books. We can read listicles and news items and celebrity profiles (and boy do we), but that alone is not healthy. I love to consume high-quality television and cinema and podcasts, but they are not enough either. They are, to extend the metaphor, the fruit and juice and pastries that make the meal tasty, but they are not going to keep you full. They are the parts of a complete breakfast, a meal that hinges on the oatmeal or the eggs on whole wheat bread.
This didn’t used to be a problem. Before the Internet, television, film, radio, or recorded music, people had few of the intellectually stimulating activities we take for granted today. The theater was an option, depending on your wealth or circumstance, but other than that and perhaps a roving minstrel band, books were it. We have so many options now, so books are increasingly being relegated to the back of the queue. It must not be so.
I’ve come to view books as arboretums. They are worlds within in the larger world, ecosystems shielded from the chaotic flea-market world of the Internet yet also in debate with it. Every page is a tree, its paragraphs and sentences the branches and vines that stack and intertwine to compose its part of the story. Our senses engage with the created world before us: the smell of the paper like the smell of the buds; the songs of the birds and the dialogue we narrate in our head; the characters we imagine in our head like the colorful trees that align and clash and have backstories of their own. With arboretums as with books, each of us see the same thing yet something altogether different.
We all need to get outside and deeply breathe in the fresh air. Literally, we can do this by escaping to arboretums, but literarily we do it with books.
I remember the beginning distinctly. I had graduated from college but was still working in my school’s admission office over the summer before I departed for Colombia, where I lived that fall. The week after commencement, with no more classes or papers or textbooks consuming my time, I picked up a book I wanted to read and read it for fun. It was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I liked it, didn’t love it, but that wasn’t the point. The point was dominion over what I read no longer rested with my professors. I was free, in the windows-down Tom Petty sort of way, and it felt great.
Four years later, I’ve had what amounts to another college education’s worth of free reading in topics that fit my fancy. Except during the two-year detour to grad school when my reading once again became more regimented, I have read what I have wanted to read and I have read a lot. On the train, on the bus, during my lunch break, in bed before sleep: I almost always have a book with me that I can whip out when the moment is right.
This is incredibly invigorating for me. There are so many books out there I want to read, to input into my byzantine repository of a brain. Sometimes the sheer infinities of books I could and want to read overwhelm me. (Bunny trail: while working at the library one night I’d just finished a book and tried to decide what to read next. Novel or biography? Classic or contemporary? Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain or Wilson’s Angel in the Architecture or Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic? Ahhh! … I debated for way too long about it and then fifteen minutes before closing, my eye found Mark Harris’ new Five Came Back and I knew immediately I wanted that one. The heart wants what it wants.)
I learned a lot from the books I read in high school and college, but I have gained just as much from what I have read on my own—especially so from the books I grabbed almost impulsively, because I just wanted to read it. No other reason. I know I will never be able to read all the books I want to read, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.
Bibliophiles will often speak of the allure of the book itself: the smell of the freshly opened pages, the comforting and colorful order of the library stacks, the textile pleasures of a book in hand. I find joy in those things too. But they alone are not why I read printed books, mostly from the library, almost exclusively. I do so because reading should be hard.
As our smartphones get smarter and more intuitive, as our online reading gets lighter and more listicled, we need something that will challenge us. By reading printed books and reading them deeply, we challenge our brains to resist the Twitter-fueled “fear of missing out,” our nagging impulse to check our phones, our tendency to skim online articles before quickly clicking a link to the next one, and our penchant for immediate gratification.
By reading print books, we can enjoy a better reading experience while also confronting the oppressive ubiquity of screens. This secondary effect should not be overlooked. I could quite easily, and quite accidentally, go nary a minute during an average day without fixing my eyes upon the radiant glow of a computer or phone or TV screen. Indeed I have lived that day many more times than I would have liked—such is the reach of the invisible android hand upon the market of our attention. But at the end of such a digitized day, my eyes wearied by the spastic technicolor of the internet, I have often taken solace in the decidedly unilluminated grayscale of the printed page, where the words stay in one place, darn it, and don’t link anywhere else except in my imagination.
This is not to proclaim the objective superiority of paper as a reading format (even though I prefer it), nor to condemn e-books (whose accessibility and convenience are in fact a great catalysts for increased reading). I simply mean to say that with a deficit of attention and a surplus of distractions, we benefit greatly from the challenge and joy of locking ourselves inside the safe and friendly confines of a printed book. Ultimately, reading is better than not reading. Read whatever and however you’d like and you’ll be better for it. But my recipe has nourished me well, and as is true with any good meal I want to share it with others.