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 10What struck me immediately upon reading this section was the oddness of the voice’s request. Eat the book?
 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:
 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,
 And cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth: and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.
 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.
 And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven,
 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:
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.
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:
- You take the words in.
- You break them down into a form that is understandable to you.
- You are nourished by what you have learned
- Your body is changed by the process (this is literally true: reading actually changes the structure of your brain).
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.
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 penaltythey earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berriesfall 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 wellin the silent, startled, icy, black languageof 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.