Greed. That was the emotion that came first, when I was given a new book yesterday, on one of my pet topics. I wanted everyone to go away, leave me alone, and let me gobble it up whole. Grrr. I was like a dog with a bone. It would have been inadvisable to try to take it away from me.
Not all books induce this kind of response, but I do think I read in the same way I eat. Too fast, usually, and it’s a struggle to slow down. Of course, some books require delicate nibbles, while others need to be wolfed down whole, like fish and chips or a burger. I’m pretty omnivorous. I’ll eat, and read, more or less anything.
Thrillers, like (whisper it) Dan Browne’s novels, for example. I once read the whole of Angels and Demons, from start to finish, on an 8-hour flight. I may have paused to shovel in some airline food, at some point. But the experience was the same: I knew it was doing me no good, but there was nothing else going. And the faster you get it down, the less you taste the additives.
The blurb on the back of my copy of Jilly Cooper’s Rivals says it’s “as comforting as eating chocolate in the bath.” The wavy, chocolatey pages are testament to the fact that you can, if you try, combine all three activities. In my defence, I was mourning the end of a romance. I think I showed restraint in not balancing a bottle of chardonnay between the taps.
Fortunately, many of my book feasts are more nutritious. I slowed right down towards the end of reading Wolf Hall, for example, because I simply couldn’t bear it to end. It felt like a rich fruit cake, packed with juicy sultanas and crunchy almonds. I finished it wanting more. Marvellous news that Hilary Mantel is planning a sequel.
What of the books on my guest bookshelf? Late night snacks, mostly, appropriate for a guest room. A chocolate-covered biscuit in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, sweet but slightly crunchy. Dorothy Parker’s poems put me in mind of olives, bracingly sour and slightly salty. I love to have a few (preferably with a martini) but after a while they make my stomach hurt. Then there’s dear old Lucky Jim, familiar as cheese on toast. (But much funnier. Can’t think of funny food.)
It’s been a while since I tackled a full, seven-course dinner, like Middlemarch or Our Mutual Friend (my two favourite Victorian novels). Maybe my attention span has been eaten away by the peanuts and truffles of Twitter and blogs? The Victorians had an amazing capacity for food, as well as an astonishing ability to read enormously long books. Just reading about the feasts wolfed down by Mr Pickwick and friends can give me indigestion.
At least my literary feasts are fat-free. But then the two do come together, for example when I read about a meal and immediately start craving whatever they’re having. I once read that Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday contains the best recipe for a fish stew. I fully intend to try it – indeed, living so close to Fitzroy Square, I may even vist the same fishmonger. I remember as a student, urgently breaking off from reading Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones to visit the supermarket, suddenly desperate for Tom’s bread and cheese lunch.
Now, which literary character described a certain sort of romance as ‘the type of book you read while eating an apple?’ Comfort me with apples, romances, poetry and truffles. “When I have a little money, I buy books. If there’s any over, I buy clothes and food.” (Erasmus, who clearly didn’t have haircuts and shoes to take into consideration.)