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Month: April, 2012

A consuming read

Fans of epicurean anniversaries will have noted that 1st April marked the birthday of Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), one of the fathers of modern gastronomy and author of Physiologie du goût (The Physiology of Taste).  Savarin earned his living as a lawyer and a magistrate, but it was as a gourmand that made his name. His Physiologie  is a series of meditations on the proper appreciation of food which remains in print some 187 years after its original publication. Like any true enthusiast Savarin doesn’t limit his scope. His prose mixes the minute with the universal, the philosophical with the anecdotal, and he is as comfortable contemplating the art of a proper death as he is admiring the magnificent truffle: “let no one ever confess that he dined where truffles were not” extolls Savarin. And who are we to disagree?

So what better way to commemorate a literary gourmand born on April fools’ day than with a feast of books? After all, as Sir Francis Bacon saidSome books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested”.  And, for a few intrepid bibliophiles at least, the anniversary is a chance to push back the back the bounds of metaphor and unite with a common goal – the creation and consumption of edible texts. On and around 1st April each year, edible books festivals take place at libraries all over the world. But amongst this literary gluttony, some one needs to strike a note of caution. So here for your delectation, is the Librarydot roundup of evidence that eating books is a bad idea. Bon appétit!

1.  Books don’t taste very nice

Ezekiel might’ve found God’s scroll to taste like honey, but bibliophagy (that’s book eating to you and me) has more often been used as a punishment. See for example Isaac Volmar, whose seventeenth century satire against the Duke of Saxony displeased the Duke so much that he forced Volmar to eat it raw.  In the same century Philip Oldenburger, a German pamphleteer, was condemned not only to eat his work, but to be whipped continually until he had finished it. Danish Author Theodore Reinking fared slightly better. Imprisoned on the publication of his 1644 tract Dania ad exteros de perfidia Suecorum (From the Danes to the world on the treachery of the Swedes), he was given a choice – face beheading for treachery or eat his beloved book. Theodore chose the gluttons’ route: he had his book boiled in a broth, downed it and lived to see another day.

2.  They’re not very good for you

In spite of the popularity of book-eating as a metaphor, books actually have negligible nutritional value.  In spite of this, various communities ingest the written word as a form of healing. In traditional Tibetan medicine, for example, mantras written on small pieces of paper are consumed as a form of medicine, while it was said that Christian Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia was so devout that he took to eating his favourite passages of scripture as a cure for illness. The apparently spurious tale had him dying of a ruptured intestine halfway through the second book of Kings.

3.  They could be very bad for you indeed.

If these warnings from history haven’t dulled your appetite, take heed – there’s a small but still significant chance that your literary snack has been laced with poison. The Arabian Nights, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and TV’s CSI are a few who have made use of this literary trope. Even if you’re not a fictitious character (and most of us aren’t), it’s best to avoid licking your fingers before you turn pages and always wash your hands after reading.

Overall, it might be better to follow Jack Kerouac’s lead and leave book consumption to your pets. Jack famously typed the manuscript of his most important novel, On The Road, on a scroll of tracing paper so that once he started typing he didn’t have to stop. This scroll has been preserved, but its very last section – containing Kerouac’s original ending – is torn away. Legend has it that the final part was eaten by a dog belonging to one of Kerouac’s friends. Sure enough in pencil at the end of the manuscript Kerouac has written:

 ‘Dog ate (Potchky — a dog)’.


Wiener library visit

One of the great things about working in a special collections library is the enthusiasm librarians have for sharing experiences with other libraries. It’s always good fun to have a peep at what other services are up to and not to have to cover up the fact you’re there to borrow good ideas for your own practice. My library is in the process of reassessing how we make our archives and special collection items available to our readers, and I’ve been asked to take part on behalf of the discovery and engagement team. This means lots of trips to other services, large and small, and an excuse to visit all of those libraries you’ve never got round to popping in to.

First up is the refurbished Wiener library in its new building on Russell Square. The library is open to all and a new exhibition space on the ground floor welcomes visitors, and can be converted into a larger space for evening events. Upstairs the main reading room is incredibly light thanks to its large windows overlooking Russell Square. The central space, where the enquiry desk is, feels more intimate with a mezzanine level providing extra shelving.

What’s really impressive is how the designers have played with the purpose of the spaces; integrating bookshelves into the exhibition downstairs and using in-line display cases amongst the library shelving upstairs to show archive material. These draw browsers further into the collection and contribute to the impressive 80% of casual visitors who go on to make use of the collections. With a serene, considered space like this to work in, one can see why.