My, how time flies!
Nearly two years ago, I planted this link in the comment section of one my earliest posts with the intention of returning to it as an impetus for discussion with fellow book lovers. From Aeon, a thoughtful piece on the history of the metaphors comparing reading to eating, titled Is ‘devouring’ books a sign of superficiality in a reader?:
The language of eating is often used to describe reading habits. If pressed for an explanation, one might say that to ‘devour’ books is to do something positive.
It implies intense appreciation on behalf of the reader, and suggests that books in themselves are enjoyable and delicious, like warm pastries.
This metaphor, however, hasn’t always seemed so benign. Two hundred years ago, describing someone as ‘devouring’ a book would have been an act of moral censure.
Indeed, before I discovered this short history lesson, I would have stated unequivocally that devouring a book is a positive thing. Of course, that was my off the cuff response, one offered without much forethought. As I have further considered the implications of devouring a book, I realize that some texts are to be savored rather than devoured in the same way as some foods are to be savored rather than devoured.
For instance yesterday, I splurged for Sunday dinner, bought a duck and prepared this recipe. It was definitely a dish to be savored, one where appreciating the layers of flavors and textures was warranted. It was not only good, but decadent. To eat it in a rush would be to diminish the effort, not to mention the expense, that I put into preparing it.
One of my other favorite meats is bacon. I fry it up at least 3 days a week, but I am often hastening to fulfill all of my morning duties which begin most days before 5:30. Breakfast is sometimes reduced to snatching up a couple of pieces of bacon as I pass the plate in the kitchen and sip my constantly reheated morning cup of Joe. The bacon, as much as I enjoy it, is usually devoured rather than savored. The bacon is, for all intents and purposes, common.
Common things can be wonderful, but we don’t treat them the way we would things we only enjoy on rare occasions, and the same can be said of the ideas and content we encounter in books. I was able to devour Their Eyes Were Watching God as an adult in part because I was re-reading it. Also, regardless of the fact that it was written by an author I have deep affection for, it was still fiction. Fiction can offer big ideas worthy of contemplation and reflection and often does, but I can safely ‘devour’ most of it.
The long, turbulent relationship between reading and eating is invisible to modern eyes, yet in our media-soaked culture, it is more pertinent than ever. 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. This idea of the reader as a mediator of knowledge has had longstanding cultural resonance.
Readers are only impoverished to the extent that we don’t appropriately process what we are reading. The references to Biblical prophets and prophecies is an apt one. Few would disagree with the sentiment that when reading sacred texts or tomes based on the values and implications of our sacred texts, savoring is definitely the right approach. When we are hiding truths in our hearts, we need to examine them carefully.
In contrast to the voracious and relatively quick pace at which I read Watching, I was far more deliberate, contemplative, and meditative while reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. These were ideas and words to be savored because there were, within those pages, eternal truths which I want to carry with me as long as I live. The Aeon piece touches on this distinction:
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. The ancient conception of the social significance of reading now found expression as the ethical obligation to respond well to texts.
Ultimately, this is where I fall on the question of devouring books. It’s not always a bad thing, but neither is it always a good thing. It depends on what we are reading and why. The Aeon piece goes a little bit further. Take the time and finish it if you can. It’s not very long.
What is your general approach to reading and books? Devour, Savor, or both?