Sunday, April 30, 2006

Reading and Eating

Just having finished dinner, I'm in a mood to think about eating, and Manguel helps me connect two of my favorite things: books and food. Manguel says of reading that it:

demands to be explained in images that lie outside the reader's library and yet within the reader's body, so that the function of reading is associated with our other essential bodily functions. Reading -- as we have seen -- serves as a metaphoric vehicle, but in order to be understood must itself be recognized through metaphors. Just as writers speak of cooking up a story, rehashing a text, having half-baked ideas for a plot, spicing up a scene or garnishing the bare bones of an argument, turning the ingredients of a potboiler into soggy prose, a slice of life peppered with allusions into which readers can sink their teeth, we, the readers, speak of savouring a book, of finding nourishment in it, of devouring a book at one sitting, of regurgitating or spewing up a text, of fuminating on a passage, of rolling a poet's words on the tongue, of feasting on poetry, of living on a diet of detective stories. In an essay on the art of studying, the sixteenth-century English scholar Francis Bacon catalogued the process: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."

What a list! Certainly, Manguel's book is one to be chewed and digested. I like the metaphor of reading as eating because of the way it implies that books become part of who we are, just as food does. We ingest and digest them, so that they become indistinguishable from other parts of our selves. They become so much a part of us, at least some books do, that we can't really tell exactly how they have affected us. They become "internalized" so that they shape the way we think and the way we understand the world.

I feel this way particularly about a writer like Jane Austen -- I have so thoroughly "devoured" her books that I know they have shaped my thinking, but I can't quite say how. The books are too much a part of me to analyze their effect. When I was in graduate school, I decided I could never take a course on Jane Austen because I wouldn't know what to say about her in a critical paper. I can appreciate her, certainly, but that's not exactly what you do in graduate school papers. I can't get any critical distance on her, I feel like, because I've so thoroughly ingested her.

I'm guessing you can think of similar examples from your own experience??