The taste of words, the words of taste


I woke up thinking of the nature of reading. This is probably a result of overindulging in reading over the past few weeks.

I have had a little open time while my editor reads the latest version of the new book. During the hour that would normally be filled with writing, I got to consume the written word. Even without the spare time, since the beginning of the year I’ve worked my way through a glut of reading material languishing on the coffee table, just waiting for me to pull them off the pile: “Room,” “The Irresistible Henry House,” “True Grit,” Jim Harrison’s wonderful “Returning to Earth”; Ivan Doig’s “The Whistling Season” and “Work Song.” (I love finding authors and feasting on their entire oeuvres as I am determined to do with Doig.)

But I speak of the nature of reading, that it is an appetite. Just look at the words I used in that first paragraph: overindulging, glut(ton), consume, feasting. We have an appetite for croissants, and another for activities. I have no appetite for police procedurals, but relish a well-written historical novel. We hunger for a good book. We have our fill of one genre before sampling another. The metaphor goes on and on.

Reading has another metaphorical association — love. We all know someone who is described as a passionate reader; or, someone with a love of books. There are bookstores and blogs that pair the words, “book” and “lover” in their names. My favorite gets in both the appetite and the amour: Book Lover’s Gourmet in Webster, MA. Is it any surprise that bookstores have become cafés offering the physical appetite edible treats along with the intellectual holdings for the hungry mind? I have a taste for the works of Jane Austen but no desire for those of Tom Clancy.

We read for as many reasons as there are distinct genres. For erudition, entertainment, experience; for information and opinion.

Who among us hasn’t admitted to reading the back of a cereal box when desperate? It’s as if, once you learn how, you are compelled forever more to assign meaning to linked letters. Obviously, this doesn’t hold true for everyone. I certainly know folks who’d rather sit staring out the window at the opposite brick wall than read a book.

Reading is, perhaps, an acquired taste. Once acquired, it can be teased into a craving satisfied only by the assurance that there is an unread book on the coffee table at all times. For some people, this acquired taste blossoms almost without effort from earliest days; for others, it grows out of a gateway drug — like comic books read on the front porch on a summer Sunday afternoon.

Whatever your taste, there are books out there to satisfy even the most particular of reading palates, and writers earning a living by cooking up plots and characters to serve their reading public. Some, like the late Phil Craig, even combine the two, listing the recipes that show up in the story at the back of the book like edible end matter.