Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Books and the Hungry Soul

In Around the web, Books on June 15, 2010 at 9:02 am

From RANDALL SMITH
Front Porch Republic

One of the great benefits of being someone who studies the Middle Ages is that I not only have the privilege of reading great books — Dante, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas — I also have the special privilege of seeing beautiful books.  I was reminded of this the other day as I was walking through the reading room of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and saw a student poring over a color facsimile of a beautiful Fourteenth Century illuminated manuscript.  It was visually stunning.  And I thought to myself: “Wow, those people really knew how to make books!” In the age of Kindle, we need to be careful of not losing our appreciation for books.

It’s interesting how the advent of technology does not always bring with it unmitigated progress in all areas.  Flying across the Atlantic with my legs tucked up against my chest in one of Continental Airlines’ economy seats is not necessarily better than sailing across the Atlantic on an ocean liner.  And flying almost anywhere in the States is not necessarily better than taking a train, especially if you like to read, talk to people, stretch your legs regularly, and breathe real air.  Granted, if all you want to do is “get there,” then the plane is probably your best bet.  But “faster” isn’t the same thing as “better” or “more civilized,” any more than “fast-food” necessarily means “more nourishing.”

Several weeks ago I heard someone on National Public Radio arguing in defense of books saythat they remain a good “information delivery system.”  As much as I appreciate any defense of books, I had to cringe a bit when I heard books being described as a kind of “information delivery system.”  For lovers of books, calling them a kind of “information delivery system” is akin to describing eating as a kind of “fuel delivery system.” It’s possible to do, of course, and not entirely untrue, but one feels that a crucial element of the experience has gone missing.

Several years ago Dr. Leon Kass, former head of the President’s Council on Bioethics during the George W. Bush administration, wrote a wonderful book entitled The Hungry Soul in which he argued that “eating” among human beings was not merely about “feeding.”  It could be (and in fact generally should be) a much more civilized and civilizing activity.  When “eating” is done in a social context with one’s family or friends, such meals, with their conversation and good cheer, are not only about feeding one’s body, but also about feeding one’s soul.  Thus the title of his book: The Hungry Soul.

So too, I would argue, with books, the point isn’t merely to fill one’s brain with information, any more than eating is merely about filling one’s belly with food… More here.
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