Living books

Do you feel like your books are static, passive objects, just sitting on a shelf and waiting for you to turn them alive? Think again.

As long as there is a light source in your room, then light is constantly being reflected off any exposed books in the room – from their covers if they’re closed, their pages if they’re open. That light hits the surface of the book, in a constant stream, and the surface transforms it, encoding the information contained within the surface into a signal, as the surface selectively absorbs some of the light and reflects the rest of it away.

The form and shape of the book’s letters is now contained within the light that gets reflected off, broadcast all across the room. If you are in a room with many books, they are all constantly bombarding you with their message, all the different waves of information hitting you countless of times per second. Like a radio station that’s sending whether or not one tunes into it, those signals keep coming even if you don’t pay attention to them. When you finally do, your eyes transform one of the patterns of light into a pattern of electricity, the raw signal undergoing a series of further transformations as your visual cortex extracts the information the light contained. Like a truck containing boxed goods, from which one first unloads the boxes and then opens the boxes to reveal their content, the signal of light first gives up the information about the letters, and then the information about the shapes and forms of the letters gives way to reveal the semantic content of the writing, the actual meaning of the words. You might never even consciously see the physical form of the writing as that meaning comes to life within your brain, igniting intricate networks of memories and associations, plunging you into a different world.

Our ancestors – both humans and the early creatures which eventually evolved into humans – lived a life of predator and prey, a life where some objects in our environment were dangerous or at least capable of running away, requiring us to take immediate action. It is because of the need to instantly know whether we should consider acting that we automatically classify everything as either alive or dead, animated or static.

But “animated or static” is just an abstraction that our brain imposes on its model of reality, a classification scheme that has often been useful for our purposes. Look closer, at atomic and subatomic levels, and everything is in perpetual motion: the universe is constantly recomputing itself, as the laws of physics dictate. Tiny particles are dancing and vibrating, information is being transmitted, received and transformed. The world around us, even so-called dead matter, is ever alive.

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