Reading At Table

I don’t know how you were all brought up, but in my family it was considered impolite to read at table when you weren’t the only person sitting at it. The only relaxation of this rule was breakfast, when it was fine to read the newspapers because no one really had any inclination to talk, or indeed that much to say, that early in the morning. When I married Mister Litlove, I was silently appalled to find him quite incapable of sitting and eating with his attention on the meal, if printed matter lurked within arm’s radius. He would read anything, his book, the paper, mail, magazines, the sides of cereal packets, if it happened to be visible and available. I was scandalized, and more than a bit hurt, and Mister Litlove does try to remember to put his book away these days – although the lure of an active television screen is beyond his power to ignore.

In How to Read Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster explores the meal in literature and suggests that ‘whenever people eat or drink together, it’s communion’. Not necessarily communion in the religious sense, but ‘another way of saying, “I’m with you, I like you, we form a community together.”’ The examples he chooses to illustrate this point include Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, when Tom and a lady friend dine messily and sensually, in an unholy but potent expression of desire for communion, and Raymond Carver’s story ‘Cathedral’, in which a shared meal helps the prejudiced narrator overcome his initial distrust of a blind stranger. Sharing your food, Foster suggests, delivers an ‘overwhelming message of loyalty, kinship and generosity’, and that’s why meals in literature can always be read as symbolically commenting on the protagonists’ ability to get along with one another.

Now, Mr. Foster is right, as far as he goes. And if we look back at the example of Mister Litlove and I, we can see that the meal interrupted by external kinds of entertainment is indeed a meal jolted out of its communal framework. But the whole problem with this book is that it never goes far enough. I really feel for the author of this work as I swear he had an editor breathing down his neck the whole time saying: ‘for crying out loud, keep it simple! No one wants your fancy literary critical stuff. Just talk about what the general reader can understand.’ But my understanding of reading like a professor is to open up a book, a plotline, a scene, as far as you possibly can, to push your reading until you cover every detail and angle and nuance. To be attentive to the specificity of a passage, rather than to slap an interpretative label on it and walk away. So if that disturbed meal Mister Litlove and I were sharing was to appear in print, we’d instantly take one step further in the reading of it, and recognize that what was painful was not the interrupted communion itself, but the fact that we so clearly possessed different understandings of what constituted communion in the first place. And from that, we could deduce a fair amount about our different characters. We could see that I was a sensitive, noticing type, who believed in paying attention but probably at some cost of personal resources, and that he was a more laid-back but inattentive individual, free from the need to feel responsible for the emotional contentment of others. (And tune in again to The Litlove Saga! 2pm weekdays on satellite TV. Next episode: Will the surprise arrival of Litlove’s estranged identical twin pose Mister Litlove with an impossible dilemma?)

Meals in stories, then, do indeed tell us a great deal about the relationships of characters to one another, and also to their own desires – how hungry are the characters, and for what? Food is love, that’s a basic rule of humanity, so what kind of love do our characters get and give through their eating habits? Are they offering love to each other, or some kind of substitute for it, and how is it being received? Are we watching a private relation unfold, determined by just the people involved, or are we witnessing a universal attitude? For we could stretch this out a lot further, in that food tells us masses about our relation to our culture. If you read a French novel with a meal in it, you’ll see different attitudes emerging. France closes for three hours over the middle of the day while lunch is being eaten – food is that important in French society. And the meal itself is always a work of art, whether it’s served with rustic simplicity, bread, cheese, a carafe of red wine, or whether it’s a gastronomic performance in a plush Parisian restaurant, the perspective is one of aesthetic appreciation. Eating is a form of artistic and sensual appreciation.

In British literature, by comparison, food was atrocious for most of the twentieth century, thanks to wartime rationing, and so the literary meal is much focused on family and friends coming together. Except of course this is usually to stage a huge row or act of rebellion (bad food probably promoting bad tempers). Teenagers and young men regularly storm out of meals, women prepare food with glassy-eyed medicated hatred in their hearts for their domestic oppression, lonely widows pick at inadequate meals that symbolize uncontainable sorrow. There’s a lot of emoting goes on through food in British literature, perhaps because we tend to be emotionally constipated at most other social encounters. In fact wherever your book takes you in the world, the meal will inform you richly about that society’s traditions and customs, and how their characters relate to them. The thing is to be attentive to difference, to compare the significance set by Islamic women, for example, with regard to the correct preparation and presentation of food, to the modern day Western woman who will snatch half a sandwich at her office desk. What does this tell us about the value the characters set on nurturing themselves? On preserving their communities? On being attentive to their work/life balance? On opening themselves to the sensual beauty of the natural world? On simple pleasures? On satisfying their more complex desires?

Eating a meal in a literary text is indeed an example of people coming together with an eye to communal harmony, but it’s a great deal more than that. It tells us about the characters’ relationship to the way that things are changing in society, and thus to rules and regulations (table manners are always a good, minor indication of this), to their class (nouveau cuisine, anyone, or a burger in a bun?), to pride and pretension, to generosity and nurture. Because eating a meal is the moment when public and private collide, where hidden desires are played out in a performative manner, where upbringing rubs up dangerously close to the person the protagonist is now trying to be. Gender politics are involved (who cooks? Do the ladies leave the men at table with their port to discuss world affairs?), race is involved (who serves at table – and are they adequately fed themselves?), power relations structure every mouthful, from hosts who press excess booze on their guests, to anorexics who refuse every forkful they are given. Yes, meals are absolutely dripping with meaning, and the difficulty is in finding one that would ‘only’ be a meal, where nothing much is happening at all.

So that’s literary criticism – all the things you might notice going on in a text, without getting yourself personally involved. I’ve gone on for quite long enough here, so I’ll come back to this personal side of reading on another occasion, as it’s something I want to explore, too.


16 thoughts on “Reading At Table

  1. Chris – I’d heard of it but I’ve never seen it. The link to wikipedia is great – that plot sounds AMAZING and no wonder you thought of it in this connection!!! I can see that just about every interpretation open to food in art is begging to be extracted from the screenplay. 🙂

  2. I’m going to watch Life is Sweet, too! Litlove, I so enjoyed (as usual!) your insightful reading of meals. I was brought up the same way as you and loved going to a friend’s house where dinner was eaten with a book at the table or on a tv tray in front of the tv, comics were allowed, and soda went with every meal. As a writer, I like meals for all the reasons you give, as well as providing an opportunity to bring people together in the scene. So much can be conveyed so economically then.

  3. Now why is it when you put literary criticism in terms of food it makes so much more sense to me? of course you make it sound so easy–we’ll see if I can apply this to a novel with no food scenes in it! 🙂 And I never could get away with reading at the table either, though there are days which I would be very happy to keep my nose in a book (nothing personal to those around the table) at mealtimes.

  4. I love meal scenes in films. There’s one in particular, in this film called While You Were Sleeping, that’s just like my extended family when we are together for a film. Absolutely cannot stay on one topic–it’s spot-on how a big family (mine anyway) behaves at a meal.

    Talking of reading at table, we always did when I was growing up. I love reading near people who are also reading (not just at meals, but lounging around the living room or wherever). To me, that is communion–when you’re sitting with other people, and everyone’s reading, and now and then someone says something and you can all talk about it and then go back to your books. That’s what we did at dinners in my house. Eating a meal while everyone at the table is reading feels like love and home to me.

  5. Um, but of course I don’t bring books and read them when I am eating with other people. Of course! That would be very rude. Just that when I am comfortable enough with someone that we can sit and eat and read together, that is a way for me to know that we are very very close.

  6. Litlove, hello. So, what would your twin look like or embody?

    Oh, but your post was on food. Well, some of the best descriptions of conviviality in eating come in Henry Miller’s fiction. You don’t see characters enjoying wine and chicken in Hemingway or Dos Passos in the same way (or at all). That says a lot about Miller’s embrace of all appetites, of life itself, and of his interesting in showing people connecting.

    Good post. It makes me think that food is what is often missing from some of my favourite books.


  7. I loved this post … as a reader, as an enthusiastic eater, as a writer who places scenes with food very deliberately, and as someone who grew up always reading at the table in an effort to escape the emotional violence between my parents. There’s a very strong link for me between food and books, and always will be, I suspect.

    I have a theory, which I’ve always used in my fiction, that the type of dessert a person most enjoys is very revealing of his or her personality. I have never yet known this theory to fail.

  8. I wonder if you are right, that foster had an editor breathing down his neck telling him to make things over simple. It makes sense. And you have made me hungry 🙂 Very nice post Litlove. You prove once again it is possbile to do lit crit without the jargon. So is that 2 pm GMT for the Litlove Saga? Does it stream on the internet by any chance? 🙂

  9. Lilian – I bet you would know your way around a fictional meal! And I understand exactly what you mean about the lure of relaxed dining (I know – if I went to a friend’s house where coca-cola was on offer with a meal, my eyes were on stalks!). I do like it still if the three of us eat all watching a film together or a comedy programme. That can feel very laid-back and yet still together.

    Danielle – I don’t want to confess how many college dinners I’ve had to attend when all I could think about is how much I wish I were quietly reading!! And lol – here’s betting that the next five novels you read feature NO eating scenes whatsoever! But you are a very astute reader in any case and I always love reading your take on a book.

    Jenny – ooh, I know that film, and that meal! I love that film, actually, especially the Christmas scene, with the dad cuddling his new glue gun on his lap (that’s very much my family!). I know exactly what you mean about reading together and I agree that it is a HUGE pleasure. So comfy, so secure, so relaxing. If I could do all my socialising by reading, I honestly would (and in a way that would be understood as not at all impolite, but just completely relaxed).

    Jeff – ha! If I had a twin then naturally she would embody my deeply hidden bad side. I will say no more. Funnily enough, Miller was one of the authors who occurred to me as I was writing this. I remember everyone being so utterly starving in his books that all food verged on the miraculous. And Miller had a terrible reputation as a scrounger of free meals – but then I guess penniless authors must eat somehow. Absolutely agree about appetite – that’s very vivid and powerful in his novels.

    David – what a fascinating theory. I am going to set about trying that one out, now, and I’ll see what I come up with. Very interesting links you have there between food and books. Books are definitely the one thing I am positively greedy for, in a way that I never really have been with food. With books I have no limit and will delight in making a pig of myself. 🙂

    Stefanie – it’s what I hope was the reason for the rather limited nature of the book. Certainly editors over here look horrified if you mention the possibility of writing books about books, so I figure it’s at least likely. LOL! to the internet streaming!!!! What a thought. I will suggest to Mister L that he be captured for the entertainment on my blogging friends on webcam. He will make those publishers look utterly positive about less immediately commercial books….

  10. You’ve made me really curious now to have a look at meals in books. And I’m also thinking back now to those not-so-relaxed family meals of the past. When a meal works well there’s containment of feelings and the whole food is love aspect. But when those meals are going badly. Oh boy, the issues that emerge. Around control just to take one example. No wonder those teenagers and young men get angry and storm out. Anyway, that’s just my take on it. As corny as it sounds, you made a delicious meal out of this topic. One to remember!

  11. One of my earliest memories involves my grandmother reading from the book Heidi, and the bit about Heidi and The Grandfather sharing fresh bread, butter, and goat’s milk. I would ask her specifically to read that part, and then fix me the same snack, all the while pretending our regular cow’s milk had come from one of our own mountain goats. Ever since, I’ve loved reading about food, and reading well written meal scenes in novels. But it’s always been the food that caught my attention…now after your thoughtful post, I’ll be looking more closely at the way the characters interact (or don’t) during the meal.

    Personally, I love to read while eating 🙂

  12. You’ve got me wondering about the meals I’ve staged in my own novel. I’m suddenly realizing how many there are! Before I read this, I would have said that was unintentional, but now I’m sure not (which just goes to show that even the author doesn’t always knowvthe depths to which her writing can be interpreted).

  13. OPete – thank you! It is funny how different the experience of a meal can be. I can remember when my son was little and going through a very fussy stage (to be fair, he’s always been fussy) and I found I had to walk away. If I stood there, hovering over him, it made it worse for both of us. After that, of course, we then had to work a little to reintegrate him into a family eating together sort of experience. Sigh. Why are all these things so much harder than they need be? You’re right, it’s a vexed area!

    Becca – oh I love the thought of eating in reality what the characters in a book are eating fictionally. I’ll have to think about that, about whether it’s possible to recreate that as an adult. Hmm….

    Emily – good authors are just telling the story the way it feels most right and accurate. Then us critical types come along afterwards and say why that right way contains such an emotional punch. It wouldn’t work if you were too aware of what you were doing! I’d love to know, though, what conclusions you come to about putting meals in your novel. I’ll bet cold hard cash they are there for an excellent reason.

  14. Pingback: Meals « The Art of Reading

  15. WOW! As a cafe owner & book lover, this has to be one of my favourite web discoveries! I’m so glad you wrote this & although dated 2010, I do hope you will add to this, not just food wise but with other means of symbolism.

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