Table Manners

Some say that reading is like eating -but I hadn’t thought of it like that before. I do read a fair amount, but I’ve never felt it was akin to gluttony or anything. I feel no shame; I do not hide my books under the bed, or close the curtains when I sit back to enjoy one in the evening. In fact, rather than gobbling them up until they’re gone, I prefer to sample little bits of different things, like hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party -I like to keep snacking on them.

My interest was piqued, however, by an essay in Aeon by Louise Adams with the intriguing title Is ‘devouring’ books a sign of superficiality in a reader? I mean with a title like that, how could I keep myself from salivating?

‘The language of eating is often used to describe reading habits,’ she declares -hardly a surprise given the title of her oeuvre. But she goes on to suggest that ‘Two hundred years ago, describing someone as ‘devouring’ a book would have been an act of moral censure’ -presumably because ‘The unexamined language of ‘devouring’ idealises one kind of reading at the expense of others, leaving readers impoverished… For millennia, reading’s connection to eating has reflected its centrality to social power and responsibility. Some of the oldest reading images have their roots in the Bible: Ezekiel and John, for instance, literally eat manuscripts during divine visions, representing their role as revelatory agents.’ However,  ‘Renaissance reader-scholars developed a conviction that not all reading was equal. While their eating imagery sometimes distinguished between kinds of books (as in Francis Bacon’s adage that ‘[s]ome books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed’), first and foremost it distinguished between different kinds of readers… Bad reading, in the 17th century, was like indigestion: practices of shallow, piecemeal or heavy reading were thought to affect personality, conversation and health.’

But wait, it gets worse. ‘In the 18th century, writers began to distinguish between appetite (the connection between reading and the body) and taste (connection between reading and the mind)… Good reading became a sanitised activity, common to polite community. Those who craved, gobbled and devoured texts were, by implication, vulgar. Novels particularly were associated with such habits of consumption, for they became a symbol of the newly accessible literary market. Commentators described them as feeding unwholesome appetites… Gustatory metaphors often implied that women read according to the flesh, in contrast to the disembodied realm of ‘rational’ masculinity.’

And yet, not only were the class and gender prejudices of the time apparent, reading began to take on moral flavours. ‘Educational manuals, essays and advice books pitted ‘digestion’ against ‘devouring’ in order to slow down the increasingly fast-paced reading habits of their modern world, realigning reading with the process of character formation… This distinction allowed writers to position ‘digestive’ reading as an ethical ideal, while condemning ‘devouring’ as unthoughtful and hedonistic.’

However, in more recent times, things began to change, as society started to worry about the various information sources that were becoming available. There was a concern that reading itself may lose its ‘cultural potency’ and ‘This is why the language of reading-as-devouring is rehabilitated, with its unprecedented positive spin. ‘Devouring’ is reclaimed because, at its base, it signifies interest.’

Devouring, of course, ‘implies a certain tempo – it idealises the fast-paced reading experience. It also promotes a certain kind of writing… Any work that elicits a slower, more ruminative reading experience is cast as defective. Any reading strategy that resists or disrupts the linear drive of the page-turner is dismissed.’

I don’t know… it seems to me we should be aiming for a more Goldilockean attitude -a ‘just-right-baby-bear’- approach. Personally, I enjoy page-turners on occasion, but for that evening read, I prefer something I can savour over a slowly cooling cup of coffee -something that makes me think as I digest the ideas, and marvel at the metaphors employed, the words that are chosen.

So, perhaps there is something valuable in the comparison to food after all. ‘’Just reading’ is not good enough: we need to revive reading’s diversity. The language of digestion encourages slowed-down reading habits… It reminds us to be more attentive to the subtle ways in which texts have been put together by their creators – to think before just bingeing upon pages.’

It reminds me of reading to my daughter when she was very young. I remember she particularly enjoyed Aesop’s fables -or maybe we both did. The stories were short, simple, wonderfully profound and were accompanied by the most delightful pictures. I think the one we both preferred was the one about belling the cat.

I would open the book to the right page and point out the group of mice all sitting around while the face of a giant cat looked at them through the mouse hole. Sometimes I would cut right to the problem the mice were facing: how the cat was able to sneak up on them.

“No, no, no Daddy,” she would say, fixing me with the concern only a three-year old can muster. “You have to start with ‘Once upon a time,’ remember?”

Chastised, I would relent and then trip up on the next sentence. ‘The mice had a problem didn’t they…?”

“Daddy!” she would scold, her forehead wrinkling. “You forgot to tell me they were in a meeting…” And she would point at the group of mice huddled together as the cat watched.

“Sorry, sweetheart, I forgot…”

“It’s right there,” she would insist, pointing in the general direction of the sentence.

“Sorry,” I’d kid her, and pay stricter attention to the words she wanted to hear -needed to hear.

She’d heard the story so many times that she loved the structure of its unfolding in the proper order -the cadence of the words, the speeches of the various mice, and of course, the question the elder posed at the very end: “But who will bell the cat?”

I suspect the first few times she heard me read it, the message of the elder mouse got through to her about the difference between deciding on something and then actually doing it. After its endless repetition, though, I assumed she didn’t much think about what it was saying anymore as long as I followed the rules; it had simply become a story enjoyed more for the experience than the information.

One time, though, I realized that she was actually thinking about it -digesting it anew. “Daddy,” she asked, looking up at me through puzzled eyes after we had finished the story. “If the mice can’t put a bell on the cat, why don’t they just post lookarounds?”

She had me there, and it was my turn to look puzzled. “What are ‘lookarounds’, Cath?
She shook her head at my ignorance. “You know, Daddy, those are the people who guard forts and stuff.”

“Lookouts?” I corrected her. “You know… that sounds like a much better idea doesn’t it…”

“Yeah, and they could all take turns.”

I think Adams would have loved my daughter.


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