Some Bookish Bulimia of the Brothers Grimm (a dialogue)

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 I’ve read before and ones I can’t remember. It’s difficult to remember what I’ve read.

JACOB: And still more difficult to remember are those vast volumes from the future, those books already written and yet to be dreamed, wouldn’t you agree?

WILHELM: Yes, Lord Bacon once accurately suggested that “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and a few to be chewed and digested,” (01). Like Bacon, I too have forgotten most of my readings from the piles of books in my parlor.

JACOB: Oh, come on, bruder, it can’t be that bad.

WILHELM: Ah, but I am afraid that the poets are dead, they are no longer read, and even nowadays it seems I have lost the words I once absorbed. In such a state, I am not unlike Montaigne who confesses in “On Books” (1580) to have held up a book full of strange notes only to then hesitate upon realizing that what seems foreign is actually familiar to him, because the notes are Montaigne’s own notes, and only later can he remember having already read the book (02). It is in such a state that I now find my mind in.

JACOB: Oh, but I remember in another essay entitled “On Vanity” where Montaigne compares his readings of books to “the excrements of an old mind, sometimes thick, sometimes thin, and always indigested,” (03). When I read this line, it seems as though Montaigne were about to spout a kind of “bookish bulimia”—of reading books and then vomiting up their quotes without letting them digest, never to give the mind any kind of mental-nutritional value.

WILHELM: Yes, brother, I often feel the same way.

JACOB: It is true that you and I have aged like Montaigne. Each of us is the kind of person who has “forgotten it all; for though I am a man of some reading, I am one who retains nothing,” (04). Sometimes I don’t know whether I possess a genuine love for books or merely a love for the love of books. Perhaps I don’t care much for reading so much as care for those who care about reading, because it seems that now, brother Wilhelm, after several lifetimes worth of reading, I must quote at near random whatever remnants of digested books bother to burp their way up to my attention.

WILHELM: Well, if “quoting” is type of borrowing, it should not bother us to be like Montaigne. Here is someone who wishes to “be judged from what I borrow whether I have chosen the right means of exalting my theme. I make others say what I cannot, sometimes from poverty of expression, sometimes from lack of understanding. I do not count my borrowings, I weigh them,” (05).

01. Bacon, Francis. “On Studies.” Francis Bacon, the Essays [1625]. ed. Brian Vickers. Oxford World Classics. (1999). pp. 114–115. Based upon Bacon’s Works ed. James Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath London (1857–74), New York (1968), London (1996).

02. Montaigne, Michel de. “On Books.” (1580). ed. J. M. Cohen. Penguin Classics. (1958). (1988 printing). p. 171.

03. Montaigne, Michel de. “On Vanity.” (1580). The Essays of Michel de Montaigne. Vol. III. Translated by Charles Cotton. Second Edition, Revised. (1908). Ed. by W. Carew Hazlitt. George Bell & Sons, London. p. 180. [On Google Books].

04. Montaigne, Michel de. “On Books.” (1580). ed. J. M. Cohen. Penguin Classics. (1958). (1988 printing).  p. 159.

05. Ibid.