Monday, April 18, 2011

Eating Books

One of my favorite stories about books occurs in the New Testament’s bravura final section, the Book of Revelation. This section is a crazy-quilt collection of intense religious hallucinations experienced by the author, John of Patmos. To this day it remains one of the most controversial and widely read books of the New Testament because Biblical scholars are still arguing about what it means. John’s revelations are cryptic and often confusing, but for sheer imagery it’s hard to think of another book ever written that surpasses its vivid strangeness.

The part of Revelation that captured my interest more than any other occurs at the end of the 10th chapter of the Book of Revelation, but I’m going to quote the whole thing here just because it’s so awe-inspiringly wild and weird.

Revelation 10

[1] And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire:

[2] And he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth,

[3] And cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.

[4] And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not.

[5] And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven,

[6] And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer:

[7] But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as he hath declared to his servants the prophets.

[8] And the voice which I heard from heaven spake unto me again, and said, Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standeth upon the sea and upon the earth.

[9] And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.

[10] And I took the little book out of the angel's hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey: and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.

[11] And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.

What struck me immediately upon reading this section was the oddness of the voice’s request. Eat the book?

But after a moment, it made a lot of sense to me. Reading a book is an act that we recognize as being related to the process of eating:

That’s why, if we finish a book quickly, we say we devoured it. If we need time to think about it, we say we're still digesting it.

In Revelations, the book that John eats “was in my mouth sweet as honey” but “as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.” Reading this with a mind full of gustatory metaphors I immediately thought of licorice, perhaps because my first taste of licorice, at age 4, was so surprising that I’ve never forgotten it: for the first second I gobbled it up, and then the full taste hit me and I cried and cried. I felt like I had been tricked by that momentary sweetness.

There are books like that, too; books that are so well-written that they draw you in with their sweetness, only to convey a difficult or upsetting message. Biblical scholars have interpreted this scene as a description of the process of reading and understanding the New Testament itself: initially, the descriptions of God’s love and care for individuals as expressed by Jesus are exciting and make the reader feel deliciously happy, but as the reader comes to realize the personal responsibility and commitment that spring from the recognition of that all-encompassing love, it turns out to be much more difficult and much less pleasant to truly live up to Christian values. This is the bitter medicine that the honey hides.

But of course, that’s just one interpretation, and there are many kinds of nourishment. In the following poem, Galway Kinnell develops a metaphorical relationship between the “black art” of writing poetry and the taste of blackberries.

Blackberry Eating
I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

Here, Kinnell gives us the reverse of John of Patmos’ experience: the berries might be difficult to pick, but they are undeniably tasty and soul-satisfying when eaten.

These reflections on reading and eating made me wonder how I would describe some of my favorite books as meals. Here are some of mine: what kind of meal would your favorite book be?

Moby Dick: A rich, creamy seafood chowder, washed down with a pint of exceptionally strong and bitter beer.
This one is a no-brainer; Melville actually has his narrator, Ishmael, describe exactly the chowder I mean in Chapter 15 of the book (a chapter called, naturally, “Chowder”): Oh! sweet friends, hearken to me. It was made of small juicy clams, scarcely bigger than hazel nuts, mixed with pounded ship biscuits, and salted pork cut up into little flakes! the whole enriched with butter, and plentifully seasoned with pepper and salt.”

 Waiting for Godot:
After you order, the waiter brings you a small, warm piece of brown bread with a delicious pat of kerrygold Irish butter and a refreshing glass of ice water. Then he disappears into the kitchen for an hour. When he finally comes out again, he tells you your food is almost ready and asks whether you would like some more bread and water until your meal arrives. He brings you some more bread, but this time it is cold and hard and there is no butter and the water is room temperature. The waiter disappears into the kitchen again. After another hour, the lights in the restaurant are suddenly turned off and you realize that everyone else went home a long time ago and all the doors are locked.

The Phantom Tollbooth:
An assortment of jellybeans of startling flavors: olive oil, lavender, aluminum, paste, Granny Smith apple etc.


  1. Wow! This is a great essay! It was a joy to read. My favorite book (The Hunger Games) would taste something like a Mexican candy. You start off, and it is bitter, but then it gets sweet. But no matter whether you like it or not, you always have another one!

  2. Your words made me think of the deep connections between the senses that we tend to overlook or take for granted. I guess the first thing that comes to mind is synesthesia, a condition where a person can taste blackberries when looking at a skyline, etc. I believe that everyone, however, has these capacities. In fact, I think that that connection is the basic element of the richness of the senses: it's not so much how one sense works individually, but how they all intermingle to give us the experience of life. We see music more than we can say; we taste books; we listen to colors. A songwriter named Kalai wrote "With Eyes Closed." In his lyrics, he sings: "I have no need for vision, I can sing in colors." I listened to the song, and I can see what he is talking about.

    Hmm... "The Little Prince" always reminded me of grapes. Grapes, cucumbers, oranges, and sweet, warm milk. And rice.

  3. I can perfectly apply this to "The Forgotten Garden." This book is
    like a full meal, mainly because it is so long. But you start off with
    the steak; juicy with details and rich in flavor. It is so captivating
    at first, that you only stop "eating" when interrupted by something
    that impedes you to continue. Then you have the pasta, which seems to
    be delicious, full of cream, shrimp, and whatever you love the most:
    it's absolutely fantastic. But when you almost reach the bottom of
    your plate (about 100 pages left of the book) you discover that there
    are green peas hidden down there, simply waiting to be found, and turn
    out impossible to eat. You try to eat a bit more, but it doesn't taste
    the same with peas. So that's when to decide to put the fork down, and
    stop eating. The people around you get dessert, but you were just so
    disgusted of how your meal turned out that you can't even see yourself
    eating any dessert. And you just hear everyone talk about how good the
    dessert was. (in this case that would be my mom, becaus she read the
    whole book, and told me about what I didn't read, which did turn out
    to be sweet in the end.) Oh well! But that still does not make me want
    to find out what happened on my own, that just leaves me to find a new
    book report book... tururu

  4. You obviously know how to express yourself this essay is crazy I sometimes got stuck and I didn't know what you meant but i found out eventually I hope you write more your opinions are funny in a good way.

  5. What you say in this blog is actually very true, Eating a meal and reading a book are actually something very similiar, even if one does not usually thinks about it. When we read, as you say, we take a whole page, and start to break it into little pieces in order for us to digest it appropiatly. This way, we can understand and enjoy the book. If we didn't cut the book into pieces, then we would have to "swallow" the whole thing, without even analyzing what we are reading.
    I think that the paragraphs of the "Book Of Revelation" that you posted are connected to the idea of "eating" books. In Book of Revelation, this idea is not presented abstractly, becasue it is written with specific words that the angle ate the book. If the author had wanted to represent it in a abstract way, then us, as readers, would have imagined an angle reading a book with intense interest rapidly. But becasue he did not meant it that way, we actually see an angle literarily EATING a book.

  6. Adriana, I totally know what you mean. I once read a book that was called The Brown Mare. It was about a girl who bought a brilliant young mare, and trained it. She had all of these good times with her, training her, and jumping her, but then she brought her to a big competition and some men saw her compete. They offered her money and said the horse would be trained for the olympics. SHE ACTUALLY SOLD THE HORSE! I cried for about an hour and I told my Mom that I did not want to keep reading the book (there was still one chapter left). She took the book and made me listen while she read it to me. It was the saddest thing ever! That is one book that I would NOT want to eat. It would be like eating a piece of bread, and it is yummy until you realize that it is MOLDY!

  7. The last excerpts of this article just made me laugh and ponder about the words transmitted by the author to us, and how we easily change the meaning of them; sometimes making the whole sense of the excerpt seem fairly humorous when we read them in such modern times like these.

  8. Morgan! You have to tell me what happened after she sold the horse. The way you present the book, it sounds like a story of the loving relationship between a girl and her horse. Selling the horse sounds like a complete reversal! Why did she sell the horse?

    Pablo! I think it is safe to say that John did intend the reader to think of the abstract meaning behind eating a book. The concrete image you see in your mind of an angel asking John to eat a book are intended to conjure the abstract ideas of reading and understanding the knowledge found in the book.

  9. This essay is very good. I especially liked the end, when "food" descriptions are given on different books. In fact, I would say delicious food, because the descriptions really give you a taste of food maybe cooked by the best chef in the world. And it's true: books have a flavor that we will eventually find out about them.

  10. It is interesting that you have linked foods and books together! I think I would never thought of that... I remember when I read the Phantom Tollbooth. I agree that it was the weirdest book that I have ever read... and I really agree that if it was turned into a food, it would taste exactly like that...

  11. Well written essay, it was perfectly elocuted. Any who, i read the book "The Lost Hero". It was great, had so many conflicts all at once, brilliantly written, as if biting into an In and Out Burger, it is the best thing you ever taste, you bite into it, feeling a million emotions at once and you are near tears when you finish because there is no more burger.....

  12. Most books seem to start off in a happy environment,(though in books like "Tunnels" the beginning is actually so sad it makes you feel very bad.) Kind of like a very sweet appetizer before a meal. The rest of the meal is really up to the author I guess. Like asking your waiter to give you something of his/her preference without you knowing what it is till it gets to you.

  13. Christian, I know exactly how you feel. "The Book Thief" was like that for me. Well different, but still the same in many ways.

    Adriana! Your comment is awesome. The funny thing is is that I suspected "The Forgotten Garden" of being like that...

  14. i refuse to eat books ok!!!!! yiaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh

  15. EDIE!!! If you suspected "The Forgotten Garden" of being that way you should have said so!!!!! I really wish I had not even opened that book... Next time, I'll pay you to tell me my future!


  16. i really liked this essay. as it made me think that it would be cool if we could eat books, and that i would actually do so if they didnt taste wierd...anyways, it made me think alot about how eating books would be. and i totally agree, when i read a book called Ender's Game, now one of my favorite books, *out of the million* first, i would describe it as a...not bad but at the same time not a good taste. but after i went deeper into the story, the taste got sweeter and sweeter. later, after i was reaching the end, the taste got heavenly good, but later, when i reached the end, it got bitter, as i was dissapointed the book ended. luckily, this book has 8 or more books in a series ;). anyways, i really liked to read this, enjoyed it alot.

  17. Dang i remember reading this essay the first time i didn't understand it as much as this time but if you absolutely insist I'll eat only one book ok?