Wednesday, June 26, 2019

'Soul and Mind Were Being Fed Together'

When eating a meal alone – usually lunch in my office on campus – I like to read a book. I close the door, put my feet on the desk, lean back in the chair and forget about the inconsequential. I’m grateful for having a dependable attention span. I sink easily into a book. On Tuesday it was Essays of Elia, a pocket-sized edition I bought years ago at Powell’s Books in Portland that I keep in my file cabinet with King James and Webster. As Lamb tells us: “I love to lose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading, I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.”

This scene of dual-nourishment is best celebrated in Guy Davenport’s essay “On Reading” (The Hunter Gracchus, 1996). His sense of contentment, a sort of intellectual/physical equipoise, is this reader’s ideal:

“. . . and all fellow readers who have ever taken a book along to a humble restaurant will understand my saying that life has few enjoyments as stoical and pure as reading Spinoza’s Ethics, evening after evening, in a strange city – St. Louis, before I made friends there. The restaurant was Greek, cozy, comfortable, and for the neighborhood. The food was cheap, tasty, and filling.

“Over white beans with chopped onions, veal cutlet with a savory dressing, and eventually a fruit cobbler and coffee, I read the De Ethica in its Everyman edition, Draftech pen at the ready to underline passages I might want to refind easily later. Soul and mind were being fed together. I have not eaten alone in a restaurant in many years, but I see others doing it and envy them.”

I can imagine Davenport’s fellow-diners suspiciously eyeing the strange man and his little book. Of course, too many restaurants today are outfitted with televisions mounted on the walls, making the more civilized pleasures – reading, conversation – impossible.

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