On Toggling Between Books, or the Strange Fixed Marriage of Julia Child and Carlo Rovelli

Listening to: A Spotify playlist where I’m dumping one-off songs I want to keep listening to. Drinking: A Firestone Walker IPA.

Traditionally—since childhood—I’ve been a one-book-at-a-time kind of reader. The first cracks in that tendency probably came in graduate school, a time when it’s relatively impossible to be reading only one thing at a time. In the past couple of years, however, I’ve taken to reading books on meditation, which for me are usually best dipped into, considered, and savored rather than swallowed in one binge. This means that I often have one “educational” or “thoughtful” book going alongside the main one.

Right now I’m leaning into that toggling in a big way, having started both Julia Child’s My Life in France (with Alex Prud’homme) and Carlo Rovelli’s Reality is Not What it Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. In a strange way, each makes a nice counterpoint to the other.

Rovelli is a physicist. Reality is Not What It Seems is a work of popular science that aims to explain Rovelli’s understanding of the most cutting-edge physics. In order to get there, though, he starts at the very beginning (a very good place to start), telling a narrative of scientific understanding and stacking knowledge that leads from the Ancient Greeks who first theorized atoms as the fundamental pieces of the universe to the present and our exploratory attempts to understand the quantum realm. Even written in an approachable style, the concepts require mental attention to grasp.

“All this sounds like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And yet, instead, it is a glance toward reality. Or better, a glimpse of reality, a little less veiled than our blurred and banal everyday view of it. A reality that seems to be made of the same stuff our dreams are made of but that is nevertheless more real than our clouded daily dreaming.”

If Reality is Not What it Seems is a hearty and healthy supper, My Life in France is dessert. Child’s frothy, forthright, fabulous memoir of France in the late 1940s and 1950s falls into that category of books that “make you want to go to France, with a time machine.” Julia’s Paris layers on top of so many others, adding to the palimpsest that is the City of Light.

Child took a famously unpretentious approach to the subject of French food and cooking. In so doing, she encouraged a generation of Americans to do something they essentially had never done before: treat food as an art form. She established the foundation on which later American chefs and gourmandes would build their own practice of taking seriously food and cooking. Child’s genius as a public force lay in treating food as a thing to be delighted in, even worshipped, but cooking as a devotion that any acolyte could master.

“I had always been content to live a butterfly life of fun, with hardly a care in the world. But at the Cordon Bleu, and in the markets and restaurants of Paris, I suddenly discovered that cooking was a rich and layered and endlessly fascinating subject. The best way to describe it is to say that I fell in love with French food—the tastes, the processes, the history, the endless variations, the rigorous discipline, the creativity, the wonderful people, the equipment, the rituals.”

Rovelli brings the same balance of respect and delight to his subject. I’m still relatively early in the book but the narrative of scientific understanding already makes the book valuable. It’s so easy for people to forget the past, to lose our knowledge of how things have improved (or worsened) on a historical scale, to misunderstand how knowledge is built on other knowledge built on other knowledge. The creation of knowledge requires this stacking.

In a big picture sense, remembering this history has the potential to generate productive hope and ignite action. It also reminds us that people are subjects within their times and cultures, and can hopefully encourage a bit of sympathy for the limitations of our progenitors—whether they be housewives discovering their métier or thinkers struggling to comprehend the inseparability of space and time.