When I first stumbled upon Naomi Kritzer’s short story “So Much Cooking” and my other reads since the Covid-19 pandemic began, it was through a screen. Looking for a new book now means sifting through the near-limitless inventory of my city library’s online catalog, where I can then checkout titles via ebook apps like Libby by OverDrive. With several regional stay-at-home orders due to the spread of Covid-19, libraries still remain closed to the public, and most bookstores fare no better. Digital reading, it seems, is now the main alternative.
For the past year, I have forfeited the leisurely experience of visiting brick-and-mortar locations and scanning shelves, for the arguably more efficient one of using search queries, which I can then further optimize through sorting by relevance and filtering for availability and tentatively labeled “genres.” By now, I have probably forgotten how to use the Dewey Decimal System (my understanding of this library classification system was, at its best, rudimentary), and the memory of how it felt to have shelves nearly twice my height hover protectively around me during evenings at Stanford Green Library’s stacks fades by the day.
That may sound like an overly nostalgic recollection of a library visit, where the enforced silence at times can be stifling and the temperature always, always, a little too cold (even if that’s ideal for the books). But just take a moment to remember the scent of aging pages (“bibliosmia,” which I appreciate in small doses), formed by the mustiness of slowly deteriorating paper, the grassy cellulose and woody lignin reacting with light and heat, with the triumphant first turning of a page revealing the shy hint of vanilla. I have not even started a discussion of how the sensory experience of reading a printed book feels vastly different from reading via the glassy sameness of a digital tablet’s surface, which retains its smoothness even as you slide left for the next page. But with the pandemic-driven inaccessibility of libraries and affordable print options, unless you have a small fortune to spend on all your next reads, I have come to more deeply appreciate digital books, even if “print” is so tightly integrated into my traditional definition of reading.
It is in this stay-at-home, print-book-deprived context that I discovered Naomi Kritzer’s “So Much Cooking,” a short story published in November 2015 by the American online fantasy and science fiction magazine, Clarkesworld.1 Many short stories with a pandemic premise focus on the essential workers and healthcare staff on the front lines, or the scientists in search of a cure. While those roles are necessary for ending the crisis, this story centers on an ordinary Minnesotan food blogger who struggles to keep her family healthy during the winter of a rapidly evolving fictional “bird flu” pandemic.
Told through a series of food-related blog posts, the protagonist Natalie strives to feed her ever-expanding household with ever-decreasing supplies, the pandemic’s severity manifesting in her recipe adjustments and increasingly frenzied life commentary.The recipes (which Clarkesworld readers in the comments claim actually work) involve Natalie expertly substituting ingredients — mayo for eggs, banana puree for pancake thickener — but the underlying, greater challenge is how to stretch resources for the new additions to the household. Despite her and her partner’s limited space and food supply, throughout the story Natalie generously takes in her two nieces and an additional four children, noting “I just didn’t ask that many questions when I heard ‘twelve’ and ‘no heat.'”
Though Natalie is not an essential worker and has the option to stay socially distant at home with her partner, she rises to the occasion in her own right, risking exposure and potential starvation to help these vulnerable children. Even during the hard times and snowfall, when half their meals are “rice, with flavored olive oil,” Natalie sustains the household’s morale through her signature way: cooking. She creates and appreciates the small moments of joy, pausing her strict rationing of ingredients to celebrate the children’s birthdays with pancakes, and ties ribbon around teacup handles for a small display of decadence. She also cooks for comfort, hosting a private memorial with soothing “ambrosia salad” after her sister-in-law, a nurse, dies from the fictional pandemic. And when her partner suffers from severe pain and dehydration due to a kidney stone, she does not falter. Natalie sets aside her earlier “squeamishness” to learn how to trap and skin a wild rabbit in her backyard to feed him a much-needed, electrolyte-rich broth.
Despite her stay-at-home circumstances, Natalie maintains her perky blogger voice and continues to interact with her readers, sharing her hopeful attitude through her writing. Each scene of the short story is a “post” on her cooking blog, where story events are tied to a recipe or ingredient. However, as the situation worsens, she confesses that “This is no longer a food blog. This is a boredom and isolation blog” and a “stress management blog.”
The initial rigid structure of the blog posts, with a title, introduction, and recipe followed by explanations for the ingredient substitutions, gradually falters to reveal confessional asides on her current behind-the-scenes drama. Many of her recipes also dovetail into strategies to keep the children, ages ranging from three to fifteen, occupied. “I realized that I didn’t just have dinner but an activity,” when Natalie encourages them to dice candy bars for chocolate chip cookies or gather ingredients for a “Stone Soup” medley. In between handling dire situations like her sister-in-law’s illness or her partner’s kidney stone, she quips, “We are making all the jokes because it’s the only stress release I’ve got remaining to me.”
Natalie, through her online blog, and Naomi Kritzer, through authoring this short story, might not directly help end the pandemic, but they can lift our spirits and offer ways of productive coping. Kritzer, in her April 2020 Tor.com article “Didn’t I Write This Story Already,” reflects on her experience writing “So Much Cooking” in 2015 and what she foreshadowed.2 Social distancing protocols, overloaded hospitals, Minnesotan winter food shortages, and housebound settings with inherent drama, check. But what Kritzer is “happiest” about getting across is the illustration of human nature, that “in a crisis where we’re being ordered to keep our distance from one another, we’re nonetheless finding ways to support the people around us.”
Even in a contemporary high-tech setting, the Twitter popularity of this short story (shared hundreds of times and counting) demonstrates the importance of fiction and how fundamentally, we still connect with and cope by sharing human stories. The food blog itself is a medium made only possible with the Internet, and in Saveur’s “A Brief History of Food Blogs” Ganda Suthivarakom credits Chowhound as the first online food discussion forum, created relatively recently in 1997.3 Like the protagonist Natalie’s food blog, online forums provide a casual way to share personal stories and interact with others, reshaping traditional definitions of reading. With the scant opportunities for in-person discussion, many story conversations have now moved online, and occasionally with the authors themselves. Online readers can now comment directly on a text for future readers to see, and authors can even reply or incorporate their feedback directly. Just as Natalie responds to readers’ comments within her subsequent blog posts, the author-reader relationship becomes increasingly entangled, an additional shift brought by digital reading.
In the absence of printed pages, we can acknowledge the other affordances of digital reading, such as real-time sharing on social media, with many hashtags on quarantine cooking (lots of sourdough starter recipes, for one), and the pandemic-induced plethora of increased access to previously paywalled (or physically gated) literary collections. By accessing the majority of my new reads through search engines and queries, my reading experience now occurs adjacent to perusing online Kirkus and Goodreads reviews, finding JSTOR articles, and contributing to Zoom class discussions. This juxtaposition can be as literal as using a split screen with a text on the left, a secondary analysis in the center, and an online Zoom window on the right, an adaptation from having a book propped next to a notebook while you are situated in a physical classroom with seats grouped into a circle. (And as I write this article, I have also adopted a similar format with the short story, online sources, and my writing on separate tabs.)
And with our prolonged attunement to this digital learning and reading experience, how can this not fundamentally change our definitions of reading, and by extension, thinking? Maryanne Wolf in Reader, Come Home introduces the term “biliterate brain” to describe how we read differently in the print medium versus the digital medium, and the possible changes to how we allocate our attention. Print fosters “slow” reading, a single-minded focus to a text with greater comprehension and critical thinking. Digital, perhaps due to the greater likelihood of distraction, promotes “non-linear” reading with faster summarization at the sacrifice of nuanced understanding. As both modes have their “own rules and useful characteristics,” Wolf challenges us to develop print and digital literacy so we can switch more fluently depending on the need.
The current emphasis on doing things digitally may threaten our deep reading ability, but this loss is not inevitable. Indeed, it may encourage new methodologies to approach texts and supplement discussion, especially as most classes will take place online for the near-future. Wolf urges us to stay literate in both print and digital mediums, as there is a time and place to use and integrate our hard-won analog and digital reading tools. Like Natalie in “So Much Cooking,” the truncated digital blog format still offers readers — those of the fictional blog, and us — a way to engage with the text, even if the short story form itself is a product of “analog” reading.
My definition of reading has long since moved to encapsulate more than print-only paradigms. I hope to embrace this opportunity to immerse myself in what digital reading can offer, even as I continue to read single texts at a time. What are other experimental, “inherently digital” ways to tell stories and interrogate the human heart? I may not be able to visit a library in-person, but surely I can craft new language to describe the sensory experience of digital reading. The bright-lit contrast of pixelated words against a white screen, the immediacy of altering text size and font, the cross-platform functionality of shared bookmarks and highlights in multiple colors. And since I have the luxury to pontificate on reading, during a pandemic that continues to claim hundreds of thousands of lives, I should above all consider myself extremely fortunate.
All this, a long-winded way of saying that digital reading and what it fosters — community, coping strategies, and new forms of contemplation — has its merits. “This will all come to an end,” the protagonist of “So Much Cooking” optimistically says about the pandemic. “We’ll survive this, and everyone will go home.” But just as these unprecedented circumstances have already fundamentally changed our outlook on education, healthcare, journalism, politics, democracy, and more, how it will further challenge our reading practices — and how we think — remains to be explored.