On a diet of books

Napoleon’s attitude to libraries was a bit like McDonald’s : he expected to find in any of the libraries he founded, whether at the Trianon, Saint Cloud, Rambouillet, Tuileries, Fontainebleau or Compiègne, the same thing, the same flavours, exactly the same books each time.

In the 12th century, the French theologian Pierre le Mangeur – Peter the Eater – earned his name because of his legendary appetite for reading. Going back to the book of Revelation, the prescription to ‘take the book and eat it’ created a powerful metaphor of reading as eating, ruminating, chewing the cud off the page.

Medieval scholars and educators pursued this metaphor in their understanding of how reading works and what it accomplishes. Murmured reading activated the memory, committing the written words to the unwritten memory banks of the human mind.

To feed off books effectively is not only to choose nutritious reading viands but also to apply good reading techniques. Both exigencies were known to medieval commentators. A good book may not be enough to someone who doesn’t know how to read. The slow, ruminative, sedulous journey through a book was the best way to transfer the knowledge on the page to the storehouse of memory. For a good book requires a good digestion, and the art of reading may be as important as any art of writing.

Our age privilege writers at the expense of readers, and while many schools propose courses in ‘creative’ writing and the like, few take the time to focus on the arts of reading. As human memory gets increasingly externalised, reading is seen as a mere accessory to knowledge, and not a constitutive part of it. But how to read – and, as the post-structuralists argued, knowing is a way of reading the world – is as important as what we read.

Chewing still matters.

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