The Difference between Quoting and Vomiting up the Words and Works of Authors

(A Dialogue of Diagnosis between the Brothers Grimm)

Let us try to clarify what we said earlier….

JACOB: So brother, did you dream of any books last night?

WILHELM: Yes, again I dreamed of books, of authors, of words, and even ideas—ones read before and ones I can’t remember.

JACOB: I too have forgotten most of my readings from the stacks and shelves and piles of books scattered around my parlor.

WILHELM:  Yes, all words and works inside my mind have fermented into squalor.

JACOB: I am losing my sense of taste as well—it now seems that all books are bland.

WILHELM:  All literature lukewarm…

JACOB: Yes, and frequently cited but not enough studied are the words of Lord Bacon, who once suggested: “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and a few to be chewed and digested,” (01). But because I find it difficult to remember what I’ve read, it’s to a point where I don’t even know whether they were books I wanted to read.  Perhaps it reflects a tendency of mine to fixate on the desire rather than the act of reading.

WILHELM: My memory has lost words once absorbed as well as ideas once articulated by others—everything now dims toward dementia. But I take a touch of comfort in knowing that I’m not unlike Montaigne.

JACOB: How so?

WILHELM: Recall who Montaigne was: a man who retired to read, who attempted (or “essayed”) to discover himself as he put his thoughts on paper—here was a man who, after holding up a book marked full of strange notes in its margins, hesitated upon realizing that the book which seemed foreign should actually have been familiar to him, because the notes were written by Montaigne, and only afterwards did he remember having already read the book (02).

JACOB:  The devil he didn’t bother telling us the name of the book.

WILHELM:  True, he must not have digested it properly, but instead, read and chewed and ate too fast, as often occurs to people in opulent retirement.

JACOB: Often for me a book appears unfamiliar because I didn’t read it closely enough—

WILHELM:  —Because you tend not to savor the flavors of those spicy sentences.

JACOB:  I forget to fasten them to my memory, probably because I am strapped more to the idea, rather than the act, of reading books. I attend to the context of reading something while ignoring that something’s contents.

WILHELM: Perhaps Montaigne fell in love with the idea of reading his unnamed book but cared little for its contents?

JACOB: That difference, a desire for method over meaning, confounds me.

WILHELM: Ah, but haven’t you heard how preferring methods over meanings is what it means to be modern? “The medium is the message” and all that?

JACOB: I remember in another place where Montaigne compares his readings of books to: “the excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always indigested,” (03). Montaigne reveals an attitude similar to the advice on reading prescribed by Bacon, but the Frenchman’s humility makes him more honest (more intimate) than the English Lord.

WILHELM: So when it comes to reading books, do you prefer eating “excrement” or “bacon”?

JACOB: Ah, brother, but wouldn’t a far number of Muslim and Jewish readers equate the two?

WILHELM: As I am neither, I can respond only with an old pirate’s proverb: Why fart and waste it, when you can burp and taste it?

JACOB: I am astonished at your ability for over-specificity.

WILHELM: Dear brother, I am only trying to get at how it seems as though Montaigne were about to spout a kind of “bookish bulimia” onto his readers—a projectile vomit full of anorexic annotations of God knows what obscure Latin authors Montaigne read as a child. He probably quoted them aloud and at random—

JACOB: —As we ourselves often do—

WILHELM: —As does Bookbread on his blog.

JACOB: And well before Montaigne, there was Epictetus—a man who, unlike Montaigne, owned no library of books to organize his thoughts, nor castle in the French countryside with which to house them—yet still that slave and Stoic recognized:

Accordingly if any conversation should arise among uninstructed persons about any theorem, generally be silent; for there is great danger that you will immediately vomit up what you have not digested. And when a man shall say to you, that you know nothing, and you are not vexed, then be sure that you have begun the work (of philosophy). For even sheep do not vomit up their grass and show to the shepherds how much they have eaten; but when they have internally digested the pasture, they produce externally wool and milk. Do you also show not your theorems to the uninstructed, but show the acts which come from their digestion. (04)

WILHELM: In other words, we have both the ancient Epictetus and the more recent Renaissance men (Montaigne and Bacon) warning us against this habit of reading books and then regurgitating their quotations before we have let them settle in the stomachs of our souls.  And they warn us because such a habit fails to provide the mind of the reader with any sort of mental-nutritional value?

JACOB: Precisely.

WILHELM: Should we (as readers) then behave like dogs—dare we return to our own vomit?

JACOB: There you go with that over-specificity again, brother, but recall the old proverb: if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog….

01. Bacon, Francis. “Of Studies.” The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral. (1625).  Project Guttenberg. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/575/575-h/575-h.htm#2H_4_0050>.

02. Montaigne, Michel de. Essays II, x, “On Books.” (1580).  Trans. Charles Cotton.  Project Guttenberg. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3600/3600-h/3600-h.htm#2HCH0067>.

03. Montaigne, Michel de. Essays III, ix “On Vanity.” (1580).  Trans. Charles Cotton.  Project Guttenberg. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3600/3600-h/3600-h.htm#2HCH0102>.

04. Epictetus, Encheiridion (“The Manual”) xlvi, pp. 400–401.  Trans. George Long.  Google Books. <http://books.google.com/books?id=qgwqAAAAYAAJ&dq=Epictetus&source=gbs_navlinks_s>.


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