Before I even begin this extended metaphor, I want to apologize to the people who may have heard snippets of it before and find parts of this repetitive.
First, the short version. Books are like food.
There, that was easy.
Here’s the longer version. Part of being a literature person means that one of the questions I am interested in is the idea of a good book. What makes a good book good? (Get back to me once I’ve written my dissertation). And, on that note, what’s a bad book? Does good mean enjoyable? Well written? Massively important? Readable? (Those last two have an annoying habit of being mutually exclusive.)
In answer to this question, I propose that there are different types of good; different books serve our different needs in different ways and focusing on just one KIND of good as the pinnacle of literary achievement is both silly and problematic. Or, as I said, it’s like food.
Eating only one kind of food is a mistake. While there is anecdotal evidence that a diet of pickles and chicken soup in childhood will not have too many insalubrious effects, a balanced diet is important. Different foods satisfy our bodies in different ways and different books satisfy our minds’ need to think and enjoy in different ways. Children often fixate on one kind of food that they really enjoy and demand it every night (if we, I mean they can get away with it). Children do the same thing with books, refusing to move away from a specific kind of narrative and, sometimes, rereading their favorite examples until the books fall apart. My favorite food was fantasy. (Go on, ask me how many times I’ve read Lord of the Rings.) It’s still a genre I am inordinately fond of, and it makes up a not-insubstantial amount of my pleasure reading (which, unfortunately, makes up an insubstantial amount of my actual reading, but I did sign up for that).
But the metaphor stretches beyond the simple advice to “read widely”. Different books are like different kinds of food and the effect they have on us, as readers/eaters, depends on that. But, first off, I should note that people metabolize books differently. There are some people who can read spy thriller after spy thriller and never gain a pound, while others feel bloated after their first Le Carre. We don’t all respond in the exact same manner to every text, and that’s not a bad thing. So while the book diet I am outlining will be broadly true for everyone, which books map on to which foods may vary from person to person. Please consult your librarian to know if this book diet is right for you.
Some books are steak. They are serious, heavy books, chock full of ideas (and the occasional gristle) and you savor the experience of reading them. And if you read too many in a short period of time, it’ll probably kill you. These books are important (they have all 20 amino acids in them!), and make you think, but you don’t want to read too many in a row or else you’ll just get bogged down and they’ll lose their flavor.
Some books are pasta. They’re a good meal, but not as weighty as steak books. They’re easier to get into, not as emotionally draining, but you’d better watch out or you could end up reading them every night with no variety and that’s not healthy either. Sometimes, the easy and not-too-obviously-bad-for-you can be just as problematic in the long run as the giant-and-overwhelming. Also, pasta books tend to be less filling.
Some books are veggies. These are the books you really should read. Some are more filling, others make great snacks, but all of them have real, serious value and should supplement every education. A large subset of these are roasted vegetables–books that have gotten a bad reputation by virtue of being taught (badly) to elementary and high school students, but that turn out to be amazing once you can read them properly. They’re like brussel sprouts and if your 11th grade teacher had known to roast them with mushrooms and garlic instead of boiling all the taste out of them, you would have appreciated them much earlier. Once you’ve discovered that vegetabooks are good, a whole world opens up to you.
Then there are fruits. These books are equally important but, unlike the vegetables, have always looked good. Jane Austen’s a good example of a fruit book – sweet, with a just a hint of tartness, and definitely healthy. (This example brought to you by the bowl of strawberries sitting next to the open copy of Emma on my desk. I take my inspiration where I can get it). The line between the fruits and vegetables can get a bit fuzzy, with people arguing over the relative enjoyment merits of a given book and whether it has a good enough reputation to be considered a fruit–the tomatoes of the bookworld.
Those are the first of the possible dessert books, the fruits. Then comes the cake. While cake is not what I would call healthy (Despite what certain comedians who will feed it to their children for breakfast may believe), it’s delicious and filling and definitely appropriate at times. A diet of cake is a bad idea, but in moderation, one can revel in the sugar rush and enjoy it. Cake isn’t BAD for you, unless you lose sight of what else is out there and think that it makes a meal.
On the other hand, there’s candy; exemplified here by Sour Sticks. These have NO redeemable value, they merely stimulate the tongue and trick the brain into thinking it’s eating. They’re empty mental calories and have no use other than the momentary pleasure of consumption. And, like many others, I eat them anyway. Sometimes, just because they’re there. Even when I know I shouldn’t. Hey, sweets happen.
I could go into the different specific books in each food group. For example, there are okra books, that no matter how many time I am told that they’re vital and important, I’m just not going to like them. They’re not a familiar part of my diet, they’re not my thing and who decided post-colonialism was so great anyway? (I may have tipped my hand there). Okay, fine, just because I don’t like them doesn’t mean they don’t have value (especially in cultural studies), but you’re going to have to hide it in some really good curry before I agree to eat it.
If I was feeling really adventurous, I’d explain how different cooking methods relate to different critical approaches (deconstruction is boiling all the flavor out and then complaining that it doesn’t taste good), but I think my point about how our relationship to what we like about books can be conceptualized in terms of food has been worked through.
Now, if only America had a reading obesity problem.