Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach quoted in NYTimes

The following is an article published in the New York Times:

Books to Chew On
Published: March 26, 2006

FOR certain voracious readers, April 1 has become a red-letter day: It’s the one time of the year when they get to eat books. They won’t eat just any book, only those prepared especially for the occasion, known as the Edible Books Festival and celebrated in libraries, bookstores, galleries and private homes around the world. Judith A. Hoffberg, a California librarian, came up with the concept over Thanksgiving dinner back in 1999 and decided it would be best observed on April Fools’ Day, which also turns out to be the birthday of the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, author of “The Physiology of Taste” (1825). Hoffberg describes the festival as a low-key affair: “From 2 to 4 p.m., one looks at the books, and takes photographs, and oohs and aahs. And at 4, you serve tea and serve the books.”

Now in its seventh year, the Edible Books Festival has spread to 28 states and 15 other countries. In past years, much of what’s been served (pictures can be found at books2eat.com) is book-shaped cake. Other edible books might not go so well with tea, but at least you can turn pages made of sliced bread, seaweed, cold cuts, pea pods or thinly sliced rutabaga. Every once in a while, edible books get political: one West Coast environmentalist incised earth-hugging quotations into leaves of heritage lettuce, and a women’s collective from Chiapas used native dyes to write “hunger” on a bunch of tortillas. Most, however, respect the foolishness of the day. Last year, Carolyn Weigel, a librarian at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, arranged strips of bacon in the shape of France — a tribute to Francis Bacon, who wrote, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”

Bacon wasn’t actually telling his readers to eat books, any more than Weigel, Hoffberg or other librarians taking part in the festival would suggest a patron wolf down an item from their collection. As a metaphor, book-eating (or bibliophagy, to use the five-dollar word) has flourished over the centuries, invoked by everyone from Elizabeth I, who nourished her soul on “goodlie greene herbes” plucked from the New Testament, to the television chef Tyler Florence, who titled his latest cookbook “Eat This Book.” It’s an attention-grabbing title (and a popular one, shared by everything from a campy 1980’s diet manual to a forthcoming dispatch from the competitive-eating circuit), but Florence lets his fans off the hook. “You don’t actually have to eat this book,” he writes in his introduction, a point I assumed would be obvious until I read the introduction to “Don’t Eat This Book” (2005) by the director of “Super Size Me,” Morgan Spurlock: “We put so many things in our mouths, we constantly have to be reminded what not to eat.” Fast food, sure, but books? People don’t eat books — they’re bland and dry, plus the cellulose fiber in paper is indigestible. Or do they?

There are two instances of bibliophagy in the Bible. The first comes in Ezekiel, when a heavenly hand offers the prophet a scroll covered on both sides with “lamentations, and moaning and woe.” God commands Ezekiel to eat the scroll, and he reports that “it was in my mouth as honey for sweetness.” Revelation, Chapter 10, has a variation on this theme: an angel hands John a scroll to eat, telling him it will taste like honey but also “turn your stomach sour.” According to the theologian Eugene H. Peterson, the author of yet another “Eat This Book” (2006), the scroll became the source of John’s apocalyptic vision: “The book he ate was metabolized into the book he wrote.” For Peterson, this episode illustrates lectio divina, a spiritual mode of reading “that enters our souls as food enters our stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes holiness and love and wisdom.”

Peterson stops short of telling Christians to snack on the Bible, and some ministers tell the cautionary (and spurious) tale of Menelik II, the Ethiopian king who supposedly self-medicated with a few pages of Scripture whenever he fell ill and eventually died from an overdose of I Kings. Some religions, meanwhile, do quite literally put words in their followers’ mouths. Tibetans ingest printed or written mantras as a treatment for epilepsy, or as a preventive measure akin to a multivitamin. And when ultra-Orthodox Jewish boys are about to start school, they undergo a ritual in which the 3-year-old initiate licks honey off a slate showing the Hebrew alphabet, then eats a cake adorned with a quotation from Isaiah and a hard-boiled egg inscribed with the aforementioned verse from Ezekiel.

Of course, nobody needs to teach children how to eat books. “A young child’s attitude toward a book is not unlike that of a cannibal toward a missionary,” wrote A. S. W. Rosenbach, the noted book collector, who cited bibliophagy as one reason that so few first editions of early children’s classics have survived. It’s probably too early to tell whether my year-old son’s propensity to gum the board books in his library will develop into a refined literary palate, but there’s hope. Margaria Fichtner, The Miami Herald’s former book critic, once recalled how as a child she had gobbled a few pages of “Johnny Had a Nickel” “because I became so absorbed in whether the hero was going to buy an ice cream cone,” and Maurice Sendak remembers cutting his teeth on “The Prince and the Pauper.” An “Eat This Book” for children appeared in 2002, with potato-starch pages and a food-coloring pen, but the paper has an unpleasant, artificial-vanilla flavor that lingers in the mouth. No wonder it’s fallen out of print.

Bibliophagy seems to become less common after elementary school. A recent episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” featured a frustrated novelist who ate an unpublished manuscript that had to be surgically removed. A layman’s search of the medical literature, however, yielded only a solitary French article from 1951 that defined la bibilophagie as a psychological disorder that manifests itself by reading “anything, anywhere, anyhow.” The British bibliophile Holbrook Jackson, in “The Anatomy of Bibliomania” (1930), says he searched in vain for “any serious study of the dietetics of literature, or any evidence of research into this curious subject.”

But Jackson apparently never stumbled upon the work of Carlo Mascaretti (1855-1928), an Italian editor who wrote a column under the anagrammatic pseudonym Americo Scarlatti. He devoted an entire column to bibliophagy and provided several historical examples. The 17th century, in particular, seems to have been a golden age of coercive bibliophagy: the Danish author of a denunciation of Sweden staved off beheading by eating his book boiled in soup; the Duke of Saxony forced the satirist Isaac Volmar to eat his lampoon of the duke raw; the German jurist Philip Oldenburger suffered through a whipping that ended only when he had polished off every morsel of a pamphlet that offended a prince. Peter Greenaway presented a gory vision of this literal-minded punishment in “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover,” but if this form of torture persists today, it’s not exactly a major concern for PEN or Amnesty International.

In 1966, John Latham, a British artist who often used books — intact, painted, cut-up, burned — as materials in his work, invited his art-school students to a happening called “Still and Chew.” They chewed up pages of Clement Greenberg’s “Art and Culture,” taken from the school library, then spat his influential essays into a flask, where they were mixed with sulfuric acid, baking soda and yeast. Months later, when an overdue notice arrived, Latham turned in a glass vial filled with the fermented results. He lost his job, but the documentation of his experiment, from the Greenberg grappa to his letter of dismissal, is enshrined in the permanent collection at MoMA. And last month in Discover magazine, Homaro Cantu of the Chicago restaurant Moto — which prints its menus in soy ink on Parmesan-flecked rice paper — shared his vision of “dispensing vitamin-enriched edible books in regions where people suffer from malnutrition.”
But for now, eating books remains a stunt, a punishment, an act of devotion, a habit of infants and other members of the animal kingdom — bookworms, rodents, goats and at least one fish, caught in 1626 off the coast of England. It had supposedly swallowed the writings of John Frith, a Protestant martyr, which were subsequently republished as “Vox Piscis, or the Book-Fish containing Three Treatises, which were found in the belly of a Cod-Fish in Cambridge Market on Midsummer Eve.” Then there is “The Great Green Squishy Mean Bibliovore,” a creature envisioned by the children’s songwriter Monty Harper. The bibliovore — a cross between a dinosaur and a bookworm — invades a library, where a brave librarian domesticates him by teaching him to read. The bibliovore’s fate? According to the lyrics, “Today he makes a living writing book reviews.”

3 thoughts on “Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach quoted in NYTimes

  1. Wow, I was mentioned in the New York Times!?

    Thanks for posting this – fun article.

    For anyone who wants to find out more about the “Great Green Squishy Mean Bibliovore” song – hear a sample, read the lyrics, order the cd, etc. – here’s the link:

    Great Green Squishy Mean Concert CD

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