A reading nation is one that nourishes itself
Marc Lambert, CEO of Scottish Book Trust, reflects on this edition of Book Week Scotland and the importance of this year’s theme ‘Nourish’.
Appropriately enough, Book Week Scotland, which started on Monday, has Nourish as this year’s theme: Literature, food and drink have a rich common history in Scotland. The results of this are often glorious, as in Burns’ Address to a Haggis, a poem that delights in the ritual trenching of “gushing entrails bright” – a sign of national identity no less – while denigrating French ragout.
But even scarcity is celebrated. “We cultivate literature upon a little oatmeal,” said Sydney Smith abstemiously, in setting up The Edinburgh Review, the results here glorious too. Meanwhile, a revival of interest in traditional Scottish food was taking place, as evidenced in the life and works of Walter Scott. Though Scott claims to have eaten only twice a day, one can perhaps see why: breakfast at Abbotsford involved porridge with cream, salmon fresh or kippered, a home-made ham, a pie, and a cold sheep’s head, followed by oatcakes or slices of brown bread spread thick with butter.
Scott’s novels are full of food too, a subject as likely to inspire him to a purple passage as any. In Old Morality Lady Bellenden feasts on priestly ham (whatever that is!), knightly sirloin, a noble baron of beef, and a princely venison pasty – noble epithets indeed!
The shared language of food and literature is testimony to the closeness of the bond. We speak of books as providing food for thought, and of nourishing the mind and spirit. As readers we feast on words that expand us as people, the import of which we digest and make our own over time. “Reading makes a full man”, noted Francis Bacon, adding: “Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.”
As Bacon reminds us, books offer us different kinds of experiences; some are snacks, to be quickly snaffled, while others are more akin to a banquet, to be savoured slowly, one course at a time. Each has its own place in our diet of reading, which, along with our gustatory habits, should be as wide and as adventurous as possible, if we are to be healthy-living types. (Rebus et al take note: a typical Tartan Noir detective’s diet seems as dangerous as a murderer!)
The therapeutic value of reading, now the subject of much scientific evidence, is akin to the virtues of a balanced diet. This is just one reason for Book Week Scotland’s theme. A reading nation is one that nourishes itself. And remember, as Rabelais once said: “The appetite grows by eating.”