By Edward Shanahan
As a reader, I move back and forth between fiction
and non fiction. I like to immerse myself in the work of writers
who can stir our responses by their skill in crafting evocative
words, sentences, paragraphs and stories.
As a writer, I stick solely with non-fiction because
I have no talent for creative writing. I welcome the piece of
reporting and writing that seizes my attention by making me angry
enough to think about a subject or to react with a sense of surprise.
Currently, two works of non-fiction have absorbed
me because they explore areas that take me off the beaten track
and raise fundamental issues that demand our attention, if not
'Double Fold' by Nicholson Baker and 'Fast Food
Nation' by Eric Schlosser could not be about two more different
subjects yet they have much in common.
Baker's book, which is subtitled "Libraries and
the Assault on Paper," taps into my background with newspapers,
books and service as a trustee of Northampton's Forbes Library.
On the other hand, Schlosser's book, which is subtitled
"the Dark Side of the All-American Meal," ratifies for me the
merit of my long-standing personal boycott of fast-food restaurants,
which, since the late 1960s, I have regarded as a blight on the
From very different perspectives, Baker and Schlosser
are providing us with important, even primary, information about
the cultural and commercial values of the nation and what that
portends for the future. In sum, what these books do is make us
The books are dense in their detail, which is the
essence of good reporting. Baker, a novelist and essayist, provides
us with 82 pages of footnotes and reference material at the end
of the book, an example of his passion for research. Schlosser
is only slightly less obsessive, his book contains 61 pages of
notes and bibliography.
That said, let's get on with the essential arguments
presented in the two volumes.
First, Baker throws the spotlight on a subject that
has been all but ignored as a topic of public debate - the headlong
rush by libraries, especially the Library of Congress, to find
alternative ways to use their space more efficiently. That has
forced them to dispose of most of their back newspaper collections,
and to get rid of many thousands of their books, notably those
that don't circulate with any regularity.
This huge trashing is required because of space
limitations, the libraries claim, and because paper material is
fragile and has a short life-span. Such wholesale disposal is
made possible by the long-time and increasing use of microfilm
and the newer technology of digitally scanning books and storing
This blind faith in microfilming, which began with
newspapers and more recently has extended to books, is wrong-headed,
argues Baker, if it means getting rid of important, primary material
which can not reproduced with the same integrity of the original.
Microfilming has basic defects, not to mention its greater costs,
This infatuation with technology as libraries scramble
to dump more and more of their paper material is based on a phony
notion, says Baker.
"There has been no apocalypse of paper," said Baker
in an interview, "but the prediction that paper was turning into
dust was what frightened the general public so that the federal
government released over $100 million simply for microfilm. The
book-respecting public was tricked into thinking that the money
we're spending on preservation was going toward keeping the original
object. All it really resulted in were books and newspapers being
The title of the book - Double Fold - is taken from
the test that libraries use to determine if a book should be disposed.
The test, which varies from library to library, involves turning
down the corner of a page, then folding it back and forth until
it breaks off with a gentle tug.
Baker explains: "Open a book to a random page and
fold its lower right corner in toward you, forming a triangle
against the paper, until you feel it crease under your thumb.
Then fold it back in the opposite direction until it folds against
the far side of the page. That is one double fold. Do that until
the paper breaks or until you reach some stopping point, as specified
by your library's preservation department - one double fold, two,
four, five. Double folding may seem oddly familiar to some, for
it is how kindergartners are taught to divide a piece of paper
without scissors. Now, however, it is used to survey research
collections in order to determine their 'suability' and hence
Some libraries discard a book if the page breaks
after two double folds, others set the standard at five double
Unlike the librarians, Baker, has his own truer
test for determining the integrity of the paper and suability
of a book, which he applied to an 1893 book of essays by Edmund
Gosse. The pages of that book were extremely brittle and the page
corner broke during half of one double-fold.
" You don't have to be a scientist or a conservator
to perform my "Turn Endurance Test" and it's nonrestrictive,"
Baker writes. "The protocol is a follows: Open a book to a middle
page. Lift the top of the page a little with your right forefinger.
Now, when you're ready, turn the page, as if you had just read
it. Then, with your left hand, restore the page you just turned
to its initial position. Turn the page, turn it back; turn the
page, turn it back. Each turn cycle may be called one double turn,
Baker did this test on the page 153 of the Gosse
book. "I turned the page once ... and nothing happened. The paper
did not crack, disintegrate, or compromise itself in any way.
Again I turned - the paper was sound., I turned the page ten times
- then twenty, then fifty ... after four hundred double turns,
Baker concludes that his "ten minutes of research
indicated that I would able to read (the Gosse book) four hundred
times, which was plenty." Surely, there was no need to pitch the
book into the compactor because it failed the ridiculous double-fold
Baker's far-ranging critique of library policy struck
a responsive chord with me because in the last decade of running
a used bookstore I have worried about Forbes Library's practice
of selling off at auction untold thousands of its books, newspapers
and magazine collections because of space limitations and to raise
money to buy new books by getting rid of obscure titles that rarely,
if ever, circulated.
Like most matters of public policy, we are content
to let the professionals make the decisions for us even if their
choices may be misguided. Do you know what is happening to the
books and newspapers in your library?
Incidentally, Forbes Library apparently chose not
to purchase the "Double Fold' book because it does not appear
in the library's card catalogue.
'Fast Food Nation' is a more accessible book because
who among us is not a patron of fast food restaurants. and thus
the subject matter is less arcane.
Yet, the book is full of surprises as we learn more
than we ever thought we wanted to know about the multi-billion-dollar
fast food industry and how it has changed the very face of America
and its inhabitants. And much of what we learn is disturbing.
Fast food and its relentless purveyors touch all
aspects of life in ways that churches, schools, parents and children,
and governments never can.
What is so startling is how fast the fast-food phenomenon
took hold and how pervasive is its choke hold on our lives and
our communities. The numbers are truly staggering.
"In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast
food," writes Schlosser, "in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion.
Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education,
personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend
more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers,
videos, and recorded music - combined."
"During a relatively brief period of time, the fast
food industry has helped transform not only the American diet,
but also our landscape, economy, work force, and popular culture,"
Schlosser argues. "Fast food and its consequences have become
inescapable, regardless of whether you eat it twice a day, try
to avoid it, or have never taken a single bite."
Its most obvious consequence has been the wall-to-wall
franchising of American cities and towns which now look identical
in every region of the country, whether it's King Street in Northampton,
Route 1 in Dedham, Highway 101 in Ventura, Calif., Grand River
in Detroit, Peter's Creek Parkway in Winston-Salem, or East Broadway
It was as a young reporter covering planning and
zoning issues in Winston-Salem in 1968 that I first got a taste
of the fast food future in the pell-mell rush to pave over land
for takeouts, drive-ins, drive-outs, drive-throughs, and sit-down
restaurants. In 1968, McDonald's, the 1,000 pound gorilla among
fast-food conglomerates, had 1,000 restaurants. Today it has about
28,000 around the world and opens another 2,000 new ones each
So in 1968, I took the fast-food pledge - to refrain
from buying into the fast food revolution, except when shamed
into compromising - which I have valiantly tried to keep.
Less obvious than the scars on the American landscape
- which is a mix of total conformity with complete tackiness of
design and construction - are the negative impact on the nation's
health from far too much fat and a horrendous quantity of tainted
or contaminated food that causes millions of customers to become
sick every year and results in scores and scores of deaths.
Less obvious is the impact on the nation's agriculture
which has been transformed into factories as it is driven more
by the needs of the fast-food companies than by the needs of individual
Less obvious is the way in which the nation's work
force has been whipsawed by the fast food giants into accepting
lower and lower wages, sacrificing benefits, and finally seeing
more and more of the jobs going to the least skilled workers,
many of them new immigrants who are unable to stand up for their
best interests as workers.
Less obvious are the rampant health and safety violations
in the workplace - whether it be in the restaurants themselves
or in the slaughter houses where the Big Macs begin to take shape
under the most vile and dangerous circumstances.
Less obvious is the stranglehold over franchisees
that the corporations exercise in their quest for more uniformity,
more profit and more market share.
Less obvious are the economic victims of fast-food
America - small individually owned businesses that no longer are
able to compete with the financial clout of franchise operators
and chains like the Burger Kings, or Dunkin Donuts, or Gaps, or
CVSs, or Starbucks.
Fast food is such a well-established economic, social
and cultural aspect of our lives that its approach has now been
adopted by virtually every other sphere of human activity.
I knew something was up when those rezoning decisions
in 1968 resulted in acres and acres of red clay earth being bulldozed
for the new Roy Rogers restaurant, Hardee's, McDonald's, or Krispy
But I never imagined how far-reaching and pernicious
the consequences of that would be. Schlosser's book fills in the
details all too depresssingly.
By the way, this title can be found in the Forbes
Library card catalogue.