Why Books Are Fake

Every citation is either a homework assignment or a promise.

A citation, whether a scholarly footnote in an old book or a hypertext link, either promises the reader that the author has given an accurate and relevant account of the cited material, or assigns the reader to read the cited material in order to remedy the reader’s ignorance (and perhaps save the author the trouble of making a faithful summary). It may be both at once; personally, I go back and forth as context dictates.

Crawling and squirming in between the citations are the implicit citations: all those books, ideas, events, controversies, and mundane rituals of daily life that the author assumes (or pretends to assume) that the reader is already familiar with.

A book presents itself as a self-contained artifact. The form of a book (even an e-book) promises to provide a discrete chunk of knowledge. Consider the recent cult of the book – Reading Rainbow, library fetishism, John Waters’ famous admonition that if you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. As books began to obsolesce as a form, they were attributed almost sacred value as epistemic tokens. I am not immune to the fantasy that a single book can contain valuable knowledge.

But books are not separable units of wisdom. Books are tiny fragments of conversation. We are used to our own conversations: what questions are interesting, what counts as an answer, common knowledge, known dramas and their parties. Books (especially old books) throw us into the middle of an alien conversation: what is the author up to? who is he subtweeting? what does he mean by that word?

Interestingness is not a fixed property, but a move in a conversation between what everyone in the audience already knows (the “assumption ground“) and the surprise reveal. Being interesting means that the audience shares, or can be made to share, the common knowledge that the author seeks to undermine. Interestingness is a function of whatever body of knowledge is already assumed to be true. Therefore, it can be difficult to see the interestingness – the point – of a fragment of an alien conversation. René
conversation necessarily includes Heraclitus, Maimonides, Freud, Marx, Euripides, Derrida, Heidegger, Lévi-Strauss, Proust. Is it worth it to enter that conversation?

It’s easy to forget how we used books before the internet. Now, books are linked, quoted, summarized, screenshotted, dragged like a corpulent raccoon through a small pet door into internet conversations. Back then, reading the book was pretty much your whole participation in the conversation. In the information-impoverished days of one-way media, reading a book could be enough to relieve boredom. The pace of the conversation was quite slow; only a few people wrote books, and they responded to each other on timescales of years and even millennia.

Now, conversations can be had at such a fast and satisfying pace that books are relegated to being sampled and discussed in internet conversations, rather than being the privileged locus of conversations themselves.

I do not mean to suggest that longform blogging is less fake than books. Again, through its discrete textual form, and partly through having a title, a longform post promises a clickable chunk of discrete knowledge. How often does that work out? Links are allowed, but think about how annoying it is when every clause in every sentence is linked to something. It’s a war crime. And ephemeral blog posts tend to be even more awash in the subcultural moment’s peculiar “assumption ground” than books.

Three Types of Canons

I like to think that a long time ago, people mostly shared the same “assumption ground” with the people around them: the same basic epistemology, the same stories, the same songs and old jokes. Members of oral cultures held their entire world in their heads, and had no need for dictionaries. A highly condensed, unselfconscious oral “canon” formed the common knowledge of members.

Later, in societies that developed writing, literate elites (economic and religious) curated canons that formed the basis for their schooling and thinking. “Classics” (ancient Greek, Chinese, etc.) and collections of religious texts formed the “assumption ground” of the class of people anxious to demonstrate their epistemic prowess and cognitive surplus, not to mention leisure time.

Finally, as societies industrialized and fragmented, there was no clear canon to rely on to ground and organize conversation. Artificial canons were created and assigned: here are all the books people need to read to be smart and good! (They tended to be about as popular as Esperanto.)

Now we just have people’s reading lists on twitter.

As more people have time to read and to participate in mediated conversations – often literally everybody in the world in the same damn mediated conversation – the “assumption ground” has ballooned, exploded into fragments, got a mushroom infestation, got trampled on by some bison, and shot a billion spores into the atmosphere. Nobody reads the same things anymore. Yet we are so hungry for a shared assumption ground that an outrage, absurdity, or typo travels around the world in seconds.

Permanent Liminality

One of my favorite vague concepts from sociology and anthropology is liminality – the state of being between states, as in a transition ritual not yet completed. Liminality has some overlap with the uncanny: the creepiness of in-between architectural spaces not designed for people to spend time in, but merely to pass through.

Liminal spaces are in-between spaces where there is no clear script, or thing to do in the space, except to get from one “real” space to another. Liminal times are times in which behavioral scripts are relaxed – though, to be honest, they are usually replaced with liminal scripts. For instance, the liminal spaces of Carnival, Purim, and American college sports victory mobs allow for property damage, but it is understood that homicide is not part of the ritual package. Spirit possession and speaking in tongues are specific behaviors scripted to occur in specific ritual contexts – not exactly the products of un-scripted abandon.

To me, the essence of liminality is this: I woke from a dream as a small child, with the memory of the dream fuzzy in my mind. I could clearly remember that in the dream I was engaged in a behavior, and that this behavior was the most normal ordinary thing that I always did; but I had no memory of what this behavior might be, and could not remember it despite trying for days. Furthermore, I noticed that there was nothing in the real world that corresponded to the feeling of “the thing I naturally do all the time.” What do I do? This is liminality. Dreams are considered liminal, and the space between waking and sleeping especially. But the key for me is the feeling that there is, or should be, some obvious, normal thing to do (a script), and, more importantly, that this normal thing does not exist upon inspection of reality.

Arpad Szakolczai uses the term “permanent liminality” to describe a situation in which liminality gets turned on and never gets turned off. Permanent liminality “simply happens when a temporary suspension of, or deviation from, the normal, everyday, taken for granted state of affairs becomes permanent.” The “assumption ground” of common knowledge and scripted appropriate behaviors shifts, and never shifts back.

The feast was a temporary liminal holiday in our ancestors’ lives; most of us now live in a state of permanent feast compared to them. As for food, so for information of various kinds.

I find that the phrase “permanent liminality” describes my everyday existence better than any other.

Liminality does not have a positive or negative emotional connotation; like “egregore,” it connotes inscrutable power that could be helpful or destructive. Liminality can be creative and free, or dangerous and bloody. The historian Timothy Snyder notes that genocide is more common in weak states than in strong states; the recent collapse of a state, as in Snyder’s “Bloodlands,” predicts mass killing and atrocity, especially if the disembodied half-starved armed remnants of the state are still present. Liminality is strictly controlled in a ritual context, and might eat the world if allowed to escape.

I think it is a mistake to see liminality as the exception rather than the rule. Liminality was always the default, absent social ordering. Recall the “assumption grounds” and implicit citations that make interestingness possible. The shape of that assumption ground is actually mess: a domain incompletely organized by multiple conflicting systematizations. The state of mess is the background state of the reality of the consciousness-mediated world; canons, institutions, rituals, maps, etc. are imposed on top of it. Liminality was always there; it was there before the earliest oral societies tried to tame it. We live face to face with it now, whereas before we were protected by illusion. But it is nothing new.

Szakolczai says:

Permanent liminality is indeed intolerable, as it generates a sense of stasis, meaninglessness; the more things change, the more they stay the same; but to argue that therefore there is need for more change, more innovation, more excitement, is to offer the source of the problem as a solution: to re-infect the sick body; to pour oil on the fire.

To me, it seems surprising to assume that people have the power to slow or stop change. What I do see, rather than utter confusion and corpses piled everywhere, is that people start to see patterns in the change.

Even as an aesthetically abhorrent absurdity travels around the world, people connect it (in conversation) to the last absurdity, and notice the parallels and relative speed. The fact of its absurdity and its speedy transmission is, in every cycle, more noticeable than its content. This seems to me the opposite of what is foretold by Szakolczai :

In a situation of “permanent liminality,” however, movement becomes so much accelerated and taken for granted that this is no longer even perceived; thus the idea of change must be impressed upon everybody by an acceleration of change that eventually even the accelerated rate of change is accepted as natural and taken for granted, and this can go on practically without end – at least, in a certain sense, as the limits of human and natural of finitude eventually will make themselves felt.

I think it’s more likely that permanent liminality is our forever home, and we had better get used to it as much as that is possible. And technology has always been part of getting used to things.

We see patterns in the change and patterns in the acceleration. The change and acceleration of change can themselves become part of our assumption ground, to the extent that we can think that fast.

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About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. Finally we begin to agree on some basic things.

    For example, this here is a Polynesian canoe and I’m laying on my stomach trying to do some wave piloting :D

  2. Russell L. Carter says:

    I don’t read every post in my feed, but this post I did because of the clickbait title and I am ill.

    The content of this post is entirely ridiculous. An intentional troll? Well done!

    This paragraph is without positive truth-value:

    “It’s easy to forget how we used books before the internet. Now, books are linked, quoted, summarized, screenshotted, dragged like a corpulent raccoon through a small pet door into internet conversations. Back then, reading the book was pretty much your whole participation in the conversation. In the information-impoverished days of one-way media, reading a book could be enough to relieve boredom. The pace of the conversation was quite slow; only a few people wrote books, and they responded to each other on timescales of years and even millennia. ”

    I recommend Brad DeLong’s essay on Machiavelli’s library as a very tiny start on how a book can speak in a relevant way to today’s context from a dead author in the distant past. A book literally was the conversation right up till the modern age. If you had a comment on the book you could write a letter (and up to this very moment, an email) and *if* your comment is/was germane have a reasonable expectation of a forthright reply. It’s why the author wrote the book, outside of money (yeah sure SJ yadda yadda). The money meant the book reached an audience, fools. There’s a whole galaxy of books that aren’t twitter targeted for 357 seconds. Timothy Snyder is exactly the sort of author I am describing, excellent choice. If you are really intending to describe that book as fake, or its actual function in the world as fake, I am without words.

    Have you ever had to deal with a raccoon coming through a pet door? One just came through mine.

    • Its amusing that you used the example of Machiavelli’s library. Assuming the intent of reading about this list is to gain insight into The Prince, this means that that intent is to learn more about the human condition at the individual level.

      This is possibly one of the very few examples where the implicit citations (or exo semantic anchors) are relevant and easy to understand across millennia (given how little the human condition itself has changed, as opposed to the world around us).

      Does it not appear odd to you that the above category of content (that is, stuff people wrote about their feelings on other people) is the vast majority of historical texts you are familiar with? Do you think this is a coincidence?

      Looking for another example? How about math text books? Again, the exo semantic anchors are the same across time. Hence you have heard of Archimedes and Aristotle.

      ‘I think it’s more likely that permanent liminality is our forever home, and we had better get used to it as much as that is possible.’ – the essay covered the loss of exo semantic information content as a feature, not bug, of the written word (outside of specific subsets like muh fee-fee’s and math), hence the title.

      Given what you are commenting on, the least you could do is provide a link to the essay, this would allow other readers to clearly note, ‘Remember that Machiavelli lives only two generations after Gutenberg. He is thus one of the very first people in the world to have had a personal library’, i.e. first few guys to have a party yacht, hence maybe a better title would have been, ‘why books are fake now’.


      Also of interest (to others) may be this link (http://cultstate.com/2016/08/26/the-planned-destruction-of-the-alt-right/) which details how the described phenomena is being exploited by some folks :)

      • Vikas Erraballi says:

        Hi Boo,

        I’d like to get in touch with you about some of the links you shared and points you raised. care to lose anonymity and talk?

        Add me on Facebook I’m the only one with my name. My icon is a picture of a dude juggling dishes on a red carpet.

  3. And, eventually, we rework the patterns of change into clichés, then start refining those clichés… (back to canons and scripts)… and hopefully, get back to perceive a slow, stable world made up of refined, enjoyable clichés.

  4. Warning. Do not get stuck in the liminal area in between books:
    Gumby – Stuck on Books – 1968

  5. “Liminality is strictly controlled in a ritual context, and might eat the world if allowed to escape.”

    What do you mean by this? could you elaborate?

  6. “…. as an aesthetically abhorrent absurdity”

    You are trying much too hard. Slow your roll.

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