A 12th-century thinker wrote that in the process of reading, words are to be chewed, ruminated, masticated, but not swallowed. To read is to eat with the eyes, but nutrition comes from mulling over the words and the ideas they carry. Swallowing too quickly hurts the mind’s digestion, the medieval thinker noted, and forestalls memorisation.
We swallow all the time. In fact, we are encouraged to swallow, as it seems the only way for us to deal with the enormous amount of books available for perusal. And so, we peruse. We browse, but in browsing, we fail to chew, which is what browsing, in its Middle English sense (of brousen), is: feeding, eating, nibbling. In an attention economy and a time-empoverished culture, ruminative reading as recommended by the medieval masters has no place. No sooner had we taken a book in than another comes along, forcing us to swallow and move quickly on.
But there is loss in taking this approach. Memory is the first to suffer from an insufficiency of chewing. Words that have been swallowed are quickly eliminated from the system, while words that have been chewed are welcomed into the ark of memory, another image promoted by 12th-century scholars. And the words and ideas lodged into the ‘ark of wisdom’ bring the mind up closer to its aims and desires.