Wednesday, July 6, 2016

It's the old Charlie the Tuna issue: good taste, or taste good?

Renaissance reader-scholars developed a conviction that not all reading was equal. While their eating imagery sometimes distinguished between kinds of books (as in Francis Bacon’s adage that ‘[s]ome books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed’), first and foremost it distinguished between different kinds of readers. The ancient conception of the social significance of reading now found expression as the ethical obligation to respond well to texts. 
Bad reading, in the 17th century, was like indigestion: practices of shallow, piecemeal or heavy reading were thought to affect personality, conversation and health. Ben Jonson’s play Poetaster (1601), provides a graphic example. In its climax, the pseudo-poet Crispinus actually vomits up his pretentious neologisms, revealing that his course of reading has been crude and hasty. Jonson wrote that aspiring authors should read: 
Not, as a Creature, that swallowes, what it takes in, crude, raw, or indigested; but, that feedes with an Appetite, and hath a Stomacke to concoct, divide, and turne all into nourishment. 
The language of ‘nourishment’ gives this distinction a moral inflection through an association with the edible Word of Christianity. If reading matter remains indigested, Jonson suggests, one’s spiritual economy becomes clogged. His work shows how the reading/eating discourse became a rhetorical code for claims to literary, social and religious distinction. 
In the 18th century, writers began to distinguish between appetite (the connection between reading and the body) and taste (connection between reading and the mind). Hobbesian philosophy had depicted humanity as a cesspit of ungoverned appetite, and the poetry of Restoration Court culture made the bodily realm seem crude. Against these forces, the civilising discourse of taste was marshalled: appropriate literary desire was reimagined as a matter of the palate. Good reading became a sanitised activity, common to polite community. Those who craved, gobbled and devoured texts were, by implication, vulgar.

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